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The Church and the Kingdom of God

As John records his version of the great commission in John 20:19-23, he begins with a display of Christ’s victory over sin, death, and the devil. Though Christ is marked with fatal wounds, he is very much alive, and this points to an even greater way in which his disciples can consider him to be king. The undertone of this version of the great commission to his church, then, is Christ’s kingship. And that undertone encourages us to consider the relationship between Christ’s church and his kingdom. Herman Ridderbos provides a sound description of the kingdom (basileia) and the church (ekklesia):

The basileia is the great divine work of salvation in its fulfillment and consummation in Christ; the ekklesia is the people elected and called by God and sharing in the bliss of the basileia. Logically the basileia ranks first, and not the ekklesia. The former, therefore, has a much more comprehensive content. It represents the all-embracing perspective, it denotes the consummation of all history, brings both grace and judgment, has cosmic dimensions, fills time and eternity. The ekklesia in all this is the people who in this great drama have been placed on the side of God in Christ by virtue of the divine election and covenant. They have been given the divine promise, have been brought to manifestation and gathered together by the preaching of the gospel, and will inherit the redemption of the kingdom now and in the great future.[1]

Ridderbos then further defines the relationship of the church to the kingdom:

It is a community of those who await the salvation of the basileia. Insofar as the basileia is already a present reality, the ekklesia is also the place where the gifts and powers of the basileia are granted and received. It is, further, the gathering of those who, as the instruments of the basileia, are called upon to make profession of Jesus as the Christ, to obey his commandments, to perform the missionary task of the preaching of the gospel throughout the world. In every respect the church is surrounded and impelled by the revelation, the progress, the future of the kingdom of God without, however, itself being the basileia, and without ever being identified with it.[2]

I heartily affirm everything that Ridderbos writes about the relationship of the church to the kingdom except for his final thought, “without ever being identified with it.” As Geerhardus Vos argues, primarily from Matthew 16 and 18 but also with reference to John 20, “the church is a form which the kingdom assumes in result of the new stage upon which the Messiahship of Jesus enters with his death and resurrection.”[3] The new age that dawns on Resurrection Sunday is the breaking in of the kingdom of God, and the commission that Jesus gives to his disciples in the evening on Resurrection Sunday connects the expansion of the church with the visible increase of the kingdom of God in this world.

But to say that the church is the kingdom of God is not to say that the kingdom of God is the church. In this regard, Ridderbos and Vos would agree that the church and the kingdom cannot be coextensive concepts. The kingdom of God absolutely expands beyond the church. “Undoubtedly the kingship of God, as his recognized and applied supremacy, is intended to pervade and control the whole of human life in all its forms of existence.”[4]

Turning to a point of application, the kingship of Christ over the whole of human life has direct impacts on how we engage with the whole of God’s creation. After all, “individual believers also participate in a kingly role by being members of Christ's kingdom and being subject to Christ the King.”[5] This participation in Christ’s kingly role of course includes our participation in the great commission. “We seek to extend the reign of Christ by standing for the truth of his Word and by protecting and defending what he has entrusted to our care.”[6] It also extends to the ways in which we use the gifts and powers of the kingdom in our vocations. This is another way in which the fact that Christ is alive, not dead, changes everything.

[1] The Coming of the Kingdom, ed. Raymond Zorn, trans. H de Jongste (Philadelphia: P&R Publishing, 1962), 354–55.

[2] Ridderbos, 355–56.

[3] Geerhardus Vos, The Teaching of Jesus Concerning the Kingdom of God and the Church (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1972), 85–86.

[4] Vos, 87.

[5] Richard P. Belcher Jr., Prophet, Priest, and King: The Roles of Christ in the Bible and Our Roles Today (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2016), 176.

[6] Belcher Jr., 177–78.

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