The weekend assignment that Pilate gave the guards had to be the most futile mission in history. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you can” (Matthew 27:65). Ha! Good luck with that one. Nevertheless, the soldiers dutifully carried out orders, unaware of the impossibility of their task. The squad of Roman legionaries sealed the corpse of the King inside a borrowed grave, rolled a massive stone in front of it, and then stood watch outside. They were there to prevent anyone from getting in. But there was one eventuality they weren’t prepared for: someone getting out.
The authority and strength of Rome—and behind that pagan power, the full might of hell—held the tomb closed and trapped his body in. But hell had been struck a death blow the day before, and Satan’s crumbling kingdom was reeling in full-blown retreat. The devil’s client state of Rome didn’t know it yet, but when it had executed Jesus, it had driven the nail through the head of its serpentine puppet master. No squadron of soldiers, not even Satan himself, could hold back the cosmic revolution that was about to come marching out of that tomb.
THE NEW CREATION
The new creation heralded by Isaiah and the prophets—the future day of sin and death rolling back, all things becoming new, and humanity regaining its lost dominion—began in the predawn hours outside of Jerusalem with a rumbling earthquake and screaming soldiers. More than just new life was awakening in the tomb. The first heartbeat inside the grave split all of history in two: the old creation, and the dawning new creation. All of the prophetic hopes of a remade universe were being born there, as God’s future reality broke in once and for all to our upside-down world. The “liberation from bondage to decay” that Romans 8 promised began the moment that breath filled the King’s lungs. The great reversal, glimpsed in Jesus’ miracles, began in earnest as death itself began working backwards, compelled by a stronger hand than Satan. And flowing out of this one overturned death, restoration would begin spreading, slowly overtaking hell’s shattered kingdom with life until the entire universe was made new.
Jesus’ Easter morning march out of the graveyard was the spark that ignited the recreation of the whole cosmos. 1 Corinthians 15:20 says that “Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” The “firstfruits” were the very first crop that ripened, the proof that the rest of the harvest was on its way. In calling Jesus the “firstfruits,” Paul is saying that his resurrection is not a one-off miraculous event, but rather the first domino in a cascade that will result in an entirely remade world. Philippians 3:20-21 gives us this promise as a glorious hope to hold to. “We await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him to subject all things to himself.” On Easter, it wasn’t just Jesus coming out of the tomb. The astounding promise is that his resurrection is going to pull the entire broken, groaning creation out of the grave with him. And if you’re in Christ, he’s going to pull you out of the grave too. Resurrection is the goal of history.
ALREADY & NOT YET
The final pages of the four gospels describe this nascent new creation’s first moves. The King steps over the unconscious bodies of his Roman captors, a picture of his newly asserted superiority over every rival reign. He appears to his small band of disciples, who are nearly as surprised as the soldiers were to find him no longer dead. He gives them new marching orders:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:18-20)
“All authority is now mine,” Jesus announces to them. He had accomplished everything he invaded earth to do. He had succeeded where Adam failed, reclaimed the lost dominion of mankind, and now wielded it as the perfect Son of Man. To him now belonged the obedience of every nation and all creation, the rightful due of his perfect, kingdom-winning death. And then, to visually confirm this new spiritual reality, he ascends to the right-hand seat of honor and takes his place on the throne of the universe, now installed as king over all creation. Matt Smethurst writes, “The ascension of Jesus was a cosmic coronation, a royal enthronement, the inauguration of the scarred Redeemer’s reign.” The King sat down on his throne next to the Majesty on high. And now that the King was on the throne, the kingdom would be unstoppable. Jesus’ ascension into heaven didn’t mean that he was gone. It meant that he was now on the loose.
But stop a moment and feel the almost-absurdity in Jesus’ words. “All authority?” Really, Jesus? For even as he spoke those words, his murderers were still safely ensconced in their towers of power. Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea, maintained his iron military rule. Caiaphas was still high priest of the people of Israel. Caesar remained on his distant throne in Rome. The serpent’s head had been decisively crushed on that dark Friday, but on the surface it still looked like evil was doing just fine, thank you. In fact, other than a conspicuously empty tomb, not a whole lot had seemed to change in the fabric of reality. And yet here’s Jesus, claiming universal lordship and giving his disciples global marching orders. Do you feel the disconnect?
We’re familiar with this sort of tension. As we have seen in the narrative before, God apparently likes to write his stories in stages. The promise to Abraham came in stages, as did the people’s inheritance of the promised land, as did God’s promise to David. Throughout Scripture, God’s people have continually found themselves in the tension between “already” and “not yet,” caught between the partial fulfillment of promises.
This new moment in redemptive history is different, however. There are “already” and “not yet” stages to the kingdom reality that Jesus ushered in, but what we have in the “already” is fundamentally different than anything that came before. This is not Abraham waiting on “the city with foundations” (Hebrews 11:10) while living in a tent, or the Israelites longing for a temple that fills the whole world while having to content themselves with a tabernacle. No, Jesus’ words here are not just another partial fulfillment. They’re a full fulfillment that comes differently than we expected.
When Jesus said that he now possessed all authority in heaven and earth, he really did mean it. No matter what the ‘facts on the ground’ look like, the truth is that he is now the unrivaled master over all of it. Every demon trembles at his name. He really does sit at the right hand of the throne of God. The new creation really did dawn in the Easter tomb. As both perfect man and perfect God, he really does “rule the kingdom of men and give it to whom he will” (Daniel 4:25).
And yet that reign today is not visibly, manifestly present over all creation. Death and decay and sin still seem to hold uncontested sway over humanity. So if Jesus indeed has all authority, where and how, exactly, is he ruling? Russell Moore answers:
“So how do we distinguish between the already of God’s kingdom and what is not yet? The question is, ‘Where is Jesus ruling now, and how?’ The kingdom comes in two stages, because King Jesus himself does. The kingdom doesn’t come initially with the shock and awe of exploding Eastern skies, but in secret, hidden ways. It comes like yeast working its way through a loaf of bread or a seed germinating in the ground, or, in fact, like an embryo stirring in a virgin’s womb.
So if Jesus does not yet rule the world, where does he rule? He rules, in the present age, over his church. The church is a signpost of God’s coming kingdom, a preview to the watching world of what the reign of God in Christ is to look like, a colony of the kingdom coming.”
The stages of “already” and “not yet” in Jesus’ kingdom are different than all previous “already/not yet” categories, because Jesus is in fact reigning now. But that his kingdom reign is not yet expressed in its fullness; his kingdom has not yet come “on earth as it is in heaven.” But, as Moore says, in the present age, his universal reign is expressed through “the colony of the kingdom coming,” the church. One day the kingdom will fill all creation; today that kingdom is his church. One day, universal dominion of the Son of Man will extend over all nations. Today that global reign is expressed in the church, made up of a vast and increasing multitude from many nations, tribes, languages, and peoples. All the future realities of new creation today are dawning in the global people of God, demonstrating to the watching world what New Jerusalem looks like: healing, hope, reconciliation, and restoration.
THE CHURCH AS GOD’S PRESENCE
As we’ve seen throughout the entire biblical story, God’s kingdom is wherever God’s presence resides and God’s king reigns—God’s country and God’s king together. In Eden these realities were united as Adam and Eve ruled over creation and enjoyed unimpeded fellowship with God. In Solomon’s golden age, a shadow of these realities reemerged as God dwelled among his people in the temple while his chosen king exercised dominion on his behalf. And finally, in Jesus these realities broke into history in their fullness, as the Son of David was revealed to be Immanuel—“God with us.” In Jesus, human dominion and divine presence came together in one person. Jesus is where God’s presence resides and God’s king reigns—in other words, he is the kingdom.
But with Jesus’ ascension to the Father’s right hand, what became of the kingdom he embodied? Did he take it with him back to heaven? Or did he somehow leave the kingdom here?
The answer came on the night before the crucifixion, as Jesus enjoyed one last meal with his disciples. He was departing soon, he told them, but his departure would not mean that he was gone. Rather, in a way that was still mysterious to them, his departure would mean that he would be closer to them than ever.
“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever… You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you… In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you… If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” –John 14:16-23
“I will not leave you as orphans,” Jesus promised them. “I will come to you.” And this time, rather than just being with them—as he was during his earthly ministry—now he would be in them. Jesus even borrows the Trinitarian language of his relationship with the Father to describe this new union: “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” The Trinitarian fullness which, in the beginning, had overflowed in the creation of a world and image-bearers to rule it, would enfold those image-bearers back into the life of the Trinity in a way never before imagined. It was as if Jesus, existing in his deity from all eternity in a dance of love within the Godhead, was reaching out his arms to pull his people into that dance, into that relationship. God himself would be coming to make his home in their hearts, and their hearts would at last find their home in God.
With Jesus living in his people through his Spirit, the realities of God’s kingdom came to dwell there too. God’s kingdom, remember, is wherever God’s presence resides and God’s king reigns—and now Jesus dwelt in and reigned over the hearts of his people. The kingdom of God was no longer contained in the person of Christ; his presence and power means that we are the kingdom now. The indwelling of the Spirit means that now the kingdom could go viral. Jesus isn’t gone. He’s on the loose.
This is the massive reality that shapes much of the New Testament’s description of the church. In 1 Corinthians 12, the apostle Paul depicts the church as Christ’s body. “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27). This is more than a metaphor; in a vitally important spiritual sense, this is reality. We are the presence of Jesus on earth, his hands and feet and heart expressed visibly everywhere the people of God are assembled. Jesus so identifies with his people and is so united to us by his Spirit, that he speaks of what happens to us as if it is happening to him. To the persecutor Saul on the Damascus road, on the way to arrest his people, Jesus said, “Why are you persecuting me?” Not “my people,” but “me.” For we really, truly are his body, indwelt by Christ himself. Wherever we are, Jesus is. We are God’s presence on earth.
That’s why the other picture that the New Testament uses to describe the church is that of a temple. In the Old Testament, the tabernacle and temple were the dwelling place of God, where God lived among his people. Wherever God lived, that is where paradise was. The construction of the temple by Solomon was the high water mark of the Old Testament, as God’s presence and God’s king were united in a golden age of prosperity and blessing. This divine presence was what Jesus carried around with him—which is why he spoke of his body as a temple (John 2:19-21).
But now, with his Spirit residing inside his people, a new and greater temple is being constructed:
You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. –Ephesians 2:19-22
The temple is no longer a building, or even a single body as it was with the God-Man. The temple is now us, all of God’s people across the globe joined together by the indwelling of the Spirit to be a dwelling place for God. We are God’s presence on earth.
This has massive implications for how we view our identity in this strange time between the “already” of Christ’s accomplished work and the “not yet” of his consummated kingdom. Wherever God’s presence is, that’s where paradise is; that is where the blessing of God flows with life-giving, curse-reversing power. Remember Ezekiel’s vision of the new, messianic temple, out of which a river of living water flowed, bringing blessing and life wherever it touched? That reality will one day come in fullness when the New Jerusalem descends out of heaven, God takes up permanent and visible residence among his people, and the river of the water of life flows from the throne, watering the whole world with health and wholeness.
But that picture of living water flowing from the temple is not only a future eschatological hope; it’s also the present reality of the church. In John 7, Jesus borrowed the imagery of Ezekiel’s vision and declared,
“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive. –John 7:37-39
What is initially puzzling about Jesus’ statement is that it appears he’s quoting an Old Testament passage, but nowhere in the Old Testament does it actually say, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ But Jesus isn’t misquoting the Bible; he’s interpreting and applying Ezekiel’s vision. The river of living water flowing from the temple that Ezekiel foresaw will have an “already” and a “not yet” fulfillment. One day, the river will flow from the throne of God in New Jerusalem. But today, God’s throne and God’s temple isn’t in a city, it’s in the hearts of his people. Out of the temple of our hearts, God’s life-giving Spirit extends fruitfulness and blessing to the world.
This means that our identity as God’s temple pushes us out into the world on a mission of blessing. To be God’s temple doesn’t mean we stay in our holy huddles, hoarding God’s presence to ourselves while the world burns. Rather, we are those who enter into the deadness of a cursed world carrying life-giving water, cultivating the fruitfulness and blessing of Eden in all the wild spaces of a rebel society. We bring healing to the hurting, life to the dying, mercy to sinners, pardon to rebels, and the presence of God into all the broken places. If we are God’s presence on earth, that means we are also God’s mission of mercy, incarnating the nail-scarred hands and feet of Jesus in all our interactions with a hell-bound world.
THE CHURCH AS GOD’S REIGN ON EARTH
Our identity as the people of God is an awe-inspiring thing—we are the presence of God, and the reign of Christ expressed on earth. Far too often, this calling is obscured in our experience by the clouds of church politics, committee meetings, schisms, scandals, and relational friction. But even from behind the clouds, the reality of the identity of Jesus’ church shines with glory: we are the reign of God, the kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven.
Recall the story that we have been tracing since the opening pages of history. God’s design has always been for humanity to reign on his behalf. His Trinitarian fullness overflowed in the creation of the world and of a humanity capable of extending his presence and reign into it. To exercise dominion over creation as divine regents, represent the benevolent reign of the Creator, and extend fruitfulness and blessing to the ends of the earth, is what it means to be made in the image of God. That dominion was snatched away from us at the Fall, and everything broken in the world and in our hearts is a result of that coup. Jesus invaded history as the perfect image-bearing human, the Son of Man who alone could retake what we had lost and regain humanity’s dominion.
But Jesus’ purpose in winning back our dominion was never to hoard it for himself and be the sole king over the world, any more than Adam and Eve were ever supposed to be the only image-bearing humans. Jesus’ mission was bigger than just retaking humanity’s throne. His ultimate goal was the rebuilding of humanity itself, a new humanity joined together under his headship and united with his divine nature, a humanity that would rise back to the role of divine regents that we were made for. The purpose of Jesus becoming King was, ultimately, to give the kingdom back to us.
Jesus himself made this clear in the breathtaking pronouncements he made to his disciples, promises so vast in scope that we can scarcely take them in. In Luke 12, in the process of warning them against coveting material goods, he told them to hold out for something far better:
Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. (Luke 12:32)
“Little flock,” he calls them, a nod to their seemingly inconsequential size. And yet to this small band of nobodies, he offered the greatest possible prize: the entire kingdom itself. “It is your Father’s good pleasure,” he told them, “to give you the kingdom that I am laying down my life to win. I am winning it back so that it can be yours.” Think of what we have seen about the kingdom. The kingdom consists of blessing flowing as far as the curse is found, life and beauty overtaking death and brokenness, everything sad coming untrue, humanity made whole again and filling the entire creation with the glory of God shining through the glory of our reign. The kingdom of God is nothing less than the design we were made for, the goal of all history, the purpose of the universe. And this kingdom—the whole package, everything included—is what Jesus says that the Father is eager to give back to us.
Later, mere hours before his crucifixion and enthronement, he expanded on this gift:
“You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Luke 22:28-30)
“I assign to you a kingdom,” Jesus says at that final dinner, and then gives them glimpses of the spectacular reality behind the curtain: celebration, enthronement, and authority. “You will eat and drink at my table in my kingdom,” Jesus tells them. This is the ultimate celebration—begun at Cana and pictured in the bread and wine of that Last Supper—that will light up the new heavens and new earth. “You will sit on thrones,” he tells them—a shocking promise to give to a bunch of fishermen. “The regal status I now confer upon you will one day be visible and undeniable.” And finally, “You will judge the twelve tribes of Israel.” Earlier, Jesus had claimed the authority of judgement on the basis of his perfect humanity. “The Father has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man” (John 5:27). And now that Jesus has taken up that authority, he hands it back to the rightful masters of the world: the new humanity that he is rebuilding.
The idea that the Son of Man, who has all authority in heaven and on earth, would delegate that authority to his new humanity, was not a novel concept when Jesus unveiled it in the upper room. It was, surprisingly, exactly what Daniel had said the Son of Man would do. We’ve seen the original promise of a heavenly Son of Man receiving universal dominion, but keep reading and you’ll find more that Daniel had to say:
With the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14)
Daniel then goes on to describe the coming resistance to this king and his kingdom, and foretells the ultimate destruction of all opposition, at which point history reaches its final crescendo:
But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever… And the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; his kingdom shall be an everlasting dominion, and all dominions shall serve and obey him. (Daniel 7:18, 27)
It could hardly be clearer, and yet it’s so immense that we shy away from what the text is plainly saying. The “Son of Man” inherits honor and authority over all creation, and then promptly gives that honor and authority to “the saints of the Most High.” First we see all peoples nations and languages given to him that they should serve him. But at the end of the story, “the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness” are given to his people. The Son of Man’s dominion and glory and kingdom becomes their dominion and glory and kingdom. Let me say it more personally, so that it hits home: Jesus’ kingdom becomes your kingdom. Jesus’ reign over creation becomes your reign over creation.
That sounds so lofty as to be practically blasphemous, and yet isn’t this the story that we have been seeing all along? Humanity, created to rule over the world on behalf of God, gets that authority back in the end. The blessing and fruitfulness that can only flow from humanity on the throne will flow once again, not only because there is a perfect Man on that throne now, but because one day we will sit down on that throne too.
Once this earth-shaking reality is grasped, many other things in the New Testament that we glided over suddenly become freighted with meaning. In 1 Corinthians, Paul tackles the inflated egos of the Corinthian Christians in the most upside-down (or is it right-ways up?) way imaginable. Rather than cut them down to size, he does the opposite. He tells them that their sights are set way too low. In chapter 6, distressed that members of the church are suing one another, he reminds them of their royal status:
Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! (1 Corinthians 6:2-3)
“Don’t you remember the kingdom that Jesus assigned to you? Don’t you remember your destiny as ‘saints of the Most High’ to inherit universal dominion? Don’t you remember that even the angels will bow to you?” he chides them. To which I laugh and say, “No, Paul, I had no idea!” The fact that we don’t grasp the weight of what he’s saying—and, more telling, that it doesn’t transform us into humble authority-wielders and kingdom builders—shows just how far we’ve drifted from this central story of the Bible.
Earlier, in 1 Corinthians 3, Paul says something perhaps even more astounding. Apparently there were divisions in the church—people bragging about following this human teacher or that human teacher. “I follow Paul,” one would say; “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” another would claim; and the most smugly superior person would brag, “I follow Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:11-12). Onto their petty bickering Paul drops a worldview-altering bombshell:
Let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. (1 Corinthians 3:21-23)
“Why are you bragging about who is better?” Paul exclaims. “Don’t you realize that everything belongs to you?” The whole world is your inheritance, he says. Life and death are owned by you, and the present and the future are equally your possession. So, with that perspective, of what value are your petty differences? Less than nothing! It’s as if a whole group of billionaires are fighting over who saw the penny on the ground first.
There’s more to see. Once our eyes are opened to this story, all the New Testament talk about our future kingdom inheritance starts to take on the gravity of glory that it’s supposed to. “The Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ,” Romans 8:16 tells us. What does it mean to be a co-heir with Christ? Well, what does Christ now own, by virtue of his divinity and perfect humanity? Answer: the entire universe. That, then, is what your inheritance is: “the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours.” It’s all yours already; your name is on the deed to the universe—you just haven’t taken possession of your inheritance yet. 1 Thessalonians 3:12 charges us “to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.” Note: we are not just called into God’s kingdom—we are called into God’s glory. How much more sobering would our sense of calling be if that weight of glory truly rested on our souls? “Let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken,” Hebrews 12:28 encourages us. If we really felt the weight of what it means to be given an unshakeable kingdom, how much more do you think our lives would overflow with gratitude to the King who gave it to us?
And there’s still more: the great reversal that Jesus is bringing on this entire upside-down world starts with our identity as those who reign with Christ. “Listen, my beloved brothers,” James warns us. “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man” (James 2:5-6). Suddenly our cavalier attitudes towards issues of social justice and inequality take on cosmic significance. Russell Moore elaborates:
“The kingdom of God turns the Darwinist narrative of the survival of the fittest upside down. When the church honors and cares for the vulnerable among us, we are not showing charity. We are simply recognizing the way the world really works, at least in the long run. The child with Down syndrome on the fifth row from the back in your church, he’s not a ‘ministry project.’ He’s a future king of the universe. The immigrant woman who scrubs toilets every day on hands and knees, and can barely speak enough English to sing along with your praise choruses, she’s not a problem to be solved. She’s a future queen of the cosmos, a joint-heir with Christ.”
This “weight of glory,” as C.S. Lewis calls it, really does change everything. The final chapters in this book will elaborate on some of the issues that our restored image-bearing status touches and transforms. But for now, we will content ourselves with a glimpse of two last texts from Revelation—one describing the climax of the kingdom at the cross, and the other describing the consummation of the kingdom at the end—which provide perspective for everything in between:
They sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:9-10)
They will need no light of lamp or sun, for Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (Revelation 22:5)
In Revelation 5, the meaning of the cross is celebrated by all of heaven’s hosts, and it’s a surprising song they sing. The reason we were ransomed, the angels sing, is that we might reign. And at the end of the story, that purpose is fulfilled, as the church—the ransomed and restored new humanity—takes its place on the throne of Christ himself, beginning an unending human rule over the universe. Everything in between the ransom and the beginning of our reign is the church age, this strange time of “already” and “not yet,” caught between the reality of kingdom come and anticipation of kingdom coming.
THE CHURCH AS THE FUTURE
The “already” and the “not yet” of Jesus’ kingdom governs the present reality of the church. For that anticipation of kingdom coming is more than just the goal to which the church is aiming. In a real and mysterious way, it is also the present reality in which the church is living. The church is the “already” kingdom, God’s arriving country multiplying across the globe. And as the “already” kingdom, we are currently being prepared to be the “not yet” kingdom. One day we will reign with Christ over a remade world; today, the church is being prepared for that inheritance. Because we are people of the kingdom, we are also people of the future.
The kingdom of God is the future reality of Jesus’ reign breaking into the present. The church is the outpost of the future, the arrival in the present of Jesus’ future global rule. We are the kingdom coming, the future reign of Jesus invading the here and now. One day, the New Jerusalem pictured in Revelation 21 will be present reality, and everything broken will be healed. Until that day, we are what the future looks like. The future day of restored people and restored relationships and restored communities and restored races today is glimpsed—dimly and imperfectly—in the reconciliation and restoration being forged in the kingdom colonies all over the world. Today, the glory of New Jerusalem is dawning in the struggling, bittersweet, beautiful life of the local church.
That future glory is rising in our midst because we are united with the present-and-future king of all creation, Jesus. Because of our union with Jesus, everything that was true of him as he carried the kingdom around is now true of us. We are “the body of Christ,” (1 Corinthians 12:27), the presence and reign of Jesus on earth. Joined to Christ in his darkness-overturning death, we have already passed through God’s final judgment, and have come out on the other side unscathed and not guilty. And joined to Christ and his victorious resurrection, we now participate in his new life that will one day make all things new. 2 Corinthians 5:17 confidently states, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold the new has come.” “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” is more than just a description of our sanctification, it is an eschatological exclamation mark. The future is breaking in early, not just in the resurrection of the King, but in the slow-motion resurrection of his regents as well. The new creation, begun with the King’s march out of the graveyard and soon to be consummated with his march out of the clouds, today is dawning in the remade hearts of his people.
If you want to see what the future New Jerusalem looks like, you don’t need a prophecy chart or even a commentary on Revelation. All you need is a church membership directory and a window into the daily struggles and joys and victories of God’s people in their shared life together as sin and sadness are ever-so-slowly being rolled back. Look at the personal repentance of individual members in their struggle against sin, and what you’re seeing is the little-by-little overturning of Satan’s empire. When you hear songs of worship rising from the hearts of the saints, you’re listening into the anthem that will eventually drown out all sadness and fill the universe with unending joy. Eavesdrop into the thousand little ways that God’s people serve one another and encourage one another and pray for one another, and you’re observing the future rulers of the world in training. View the diverse people of God overcoming prejudice and learning to love each other, and what you’re witnessing is the shared kingdom life which is going to, one day, overtake and remake all creation.
All the future realities of restoration are coming true in our midst, not only within the walls of the church and in our explicitly “religious” activities, but in every nook and cranny of the lives of God’s people. Nothing in our daily routines or jobs or hobbies or relationships escapes the resurrection life of Jesus. Our future reign with Christ awakens significance and purpose in every moment of our lives in the present. Russell Moore writes again,
“Every aspect of my life, my relationships, my job, my family, my suffering, is part of an internship for the eschaton, preparing me in some way to rule with Christ. If the kingdom is what Jesus says it is, then what matters isn’t simply what we neatly classify as ‘spiritual’ things. Our callings—whether preaching the gospel or loading docks or picking avocados or filing legal briefs or writing legislation or herding goats—aren’t accidental. God is teaching us, as he taught our Lord, to learn in little things how to be in charge of great things.”
Once we have come back into relationship with the Creator, the exercise of our image-bearing dominion—making beauty and blessing and community and culture—is what the kingdom of God is. So when Jesus says that those who are faithful in little things will be entrusted with great things, don’t confine yourself to thinking of activities that happen within the walls of the church. In the restoration of the human project in the kingdom of God, there are no small tasks. Courtney Reissig, writing about the seemingly mundane tasks of motherhood, writes, “Our work is preparing us to rule and reign with Christ in a new earth, where the curse is gone, and we will work for God’s glory, always.” Think about your career, your hobbies, your family. Consider your neighborhood, your city, and every area of influence that the Lord has given you. This life is your “internship for the eschaton,” the preparatory academy training you as a future ruler of the world.
Many of Jesus’ parables speak about the urgency of living in a kingdom where the King is coming back soon. In Matthew 25, Jesus shares the parable of the talents, in which servants are entrusted with resources to invest on behalf of the King. Their task is to take what the King gives them and be fruitful with it so that it multiplies, an echo back to the original mandate in the garden. The King returns to find that two of the servants have stewarded their resources into multiplied blessing. His response holds out an inconceivable reward to them and to us:
“Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your Master.” (Matthew 25:21)
The servants’ stewardship was lavishly compensated with a mysterious and wonderful reward called “entrance into the joy of your Master.” Stop for a moment and consider with trembling the full weight of that phrase. This is the door on which we have been knocking for our entire lives, before we even knew there was a door. This is the experience that we have been chasing, driven by a gnawing sense that all that we’ve ever experienced is only a shadow of what we were really made for. For we were made by this joy and for this joy; we ourselves are the overflow of the Master’s happiness, and the meaning of our existence is found in tasting this joy. Entrance into the Master’s joy is the fulfillment of every image-bearing ache that we’ve ever experienced. Think of the joy of Jesus himself, perfect God and perfect Man. Think of the joy he has as perfect God in the fellowship of the Trinity. Wonder at the bond of love between the Father, Son, and Spirit which welled up in omnipotent gladness and spilled over into the creation of a world that could participate in their happiness. And think of the joy he has as perfect Man and his uncontested reign over the universe, the praise and obedience of all the peoples, and his name above every name. Imagine how unfathomably wonderful the joy of Jesus must be. This is the joy that he welcomes his servants into—the joy of perfect intimacy and union with Father, and the joy of participating in the Savior’s reign over the world, the realities of king and country brought together forever. “Enter into my joy,” he says. Make your home in its depths. Swim in the endless ocean of its delights. Enter in.
THE MARCH OF THE KINGDOM
In parliamentary systems of government, the opposition party forms what’s called a “shadow cabinet,” a roster of party officials who will be ready to step into positions of authority in the cabinet when control of the government changes hands. This government-in-waiting knows its place; it isn’t in power and doesn’t pretend it is. Rather, the shadow cabinet articulates the vision of the opposition party and seeks to advance its cause, through whatever means available to it, until the day when it is ascendant and controls the levers of power.
This, I believe, is a helpful picture of what the march of the kingdom looks like today. The church is the universe’s “shadow cabinet,” the government-in-waiting currently being trained for our roles in Jesus’ future messianic administration. We know our place (or at least, we should); we aren’t in power now, nor should we pretend like we are. We don’t wield dominion yet, and we won’t until we are sitting alongside Jesus on his throne. Today, the church does not seek to reign over the world, but instead articulates the vision of the coming kingdom and advances its cause by embodying its future reality in the present.
The priorities of the new creation, glimpsed in Jesus’ earthly ministry, are now the priorities of the outposts of that new creation, the church. So to understand your marching orders, think of Jesus’ agenda and how he carried it out. Jesus was the Jubilee in person, and everywhere he went, celebration and freedom overturned despair and bondage. Today, through the ministry of his church, Jesus is still bringing celebration and freedom to the darkened corners of the world and of our lives. The messianic agenda that he set in motion in his Inaugural Address in Nazareth is the cause that we, his government-in-waiting, seek to advance. The year of Jubilee that he ushered in continues today as we “bring good news to the poor,” “set at liberty to those who are oppressed,” and “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). We are the Jubilee in person now.
The confrontation between Jesus, the rightful king, and the serpent’s kingdom continues in and through the church today. “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet,” (Romans 16:20) Paul writes to the church in Rome. As the body of Christ, we are the means by which Jesus is grinding Satan’s decapitated head into the dust. We confront the spiritual forces of darkness as they desperately try to cling to their evaporating authority, but we carefully distinguish between the serpent and his victims. Like Allied soldiers liberating concentration camps at the end of World War II, our enemies are not those who have been taken captive by the devil to do his will. Rather, we treat our opponents with compassion, generosity, and kindness, in hope that they may perhaps be granted the same repentance that first freed us (2 Timothy 2:24-26). We speak truth to power, not because we are trying to advance a political agenda, but because we are advancing a kingdom that will one day overturn every other political system. We work for racial reconciliation because behind racism and injustice we see the dictatorial reign of the dragon. We rise to the defense of the defenseless and voiceless, whether they be unborn or impoverished or enslaved, because we are part of the great reversal that will forever turn the tables on Satan’s upside-down empire of evil. We labor to raise up communities out of poverty, disease, and ignorance, because we want to see regal image-bearers freed from under the thumb of Satan to be all they were created to be. All these physical conditions are the thorns and chains of the Fall, and our commission as people of the future is to “spread his blessings far as the curse is found.”
And through all these missions of mercy, our proclamation is, “This is the year of the Lord’s favor, and today is the day of salvation! Seek the Lord while he is to be found, bow to the coming king while there is still time, and join the renovation of all things!” In our evangelism, we are calling people to a gospel bigger than “merely” the forgiveness of sins and eternal life in heaven. We are extending an invitation to join the kingdom that will remake the universe, the life that will transform our own and make us new, and to participate in the restoration of all that it means to be human. All of this is “the gospel of the kingdom” (Matthew 4:23) that Jesus personified, preached, and purchased by his death and resurrection.
We are people of the future because the future is slowly coming true in us. When we pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10), what we are really asking is for his kingdom’s future rule to be a reality in our lives now. Let the priorities of the future shape my priorities in the present. And let my future reign with Christ give meaning and purpose to all my labors here. “What sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness,” the apostle Peter writes, “waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God” (2 Peter 3:12). Today, the kingdom colonies wait with eager longing, and “hasten” the arrival of our hope through all our missions of mercy. “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached as a testimony to all nations,” Jesus himself promised, “and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14). The more we give ourselves to this mission, the more quickly the great day of the Lord will come. And one day soon the dark will give way to the dawn, and weeping’s night will be overtaken by morning’s joy. The serpent’s head, first nailed to the cross by the triumphant king, will be trodden underfoot by the triumphant church. The door on which we have been knocking will open, and we will hear the King’s voice, “Well done, good and faithful servants. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your Master.” And then comes the wonder of wonders, grace upon grace: we will enter in.