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The Paradoxical Kingdom of God

On the verge of his crucifixion, Jesus of Nazareth is presented by John as the despised and rejected Messiah. He is despised by the Romans as they mockingly dress him up like a king and humiliatingly undermine any worldly notion that he is the kind of king who could save his place, i.e. the temple and his people, i.e. the nation, from the Romans (cf. John 11:48). Consequently, Jesus is rejected by the Jewish authorities on account of his worldly “weakness.” Simply put, no king of the Jews, no son of David, could be the Messiah in light of the bruised and bloody mess which characterized Jesus’ presentation right before his crucifixion.

And yet, the whole exchange between Pilate and the Jewish authorities in John 19:1-16, though in the moment it seems to present an incompatible correlation between cross and kingdom, is precisely what makes Christ’s kingdom unique. While the collision of cross and kingdom might render a kingdom “of this world” incomprehensible, for Christ, whose kingdom is “not of this world,” it strikes the balance between power and weakness, wisdom and foolishness. More precisely, it presents the paradox of a powerfully “weak” and “foolishly” wise kingdom.

But in order for any of that to make sense, one must understand Jesus of Nazareth and his claim to be king in light of two things: his subsequent resurrection and his future return. Christ’s resurrection reminds us that his humiliation, which is on full display in John 19, is not the end of the story. He will be raised on the third day in vindication of his own person, as the righteous mediator of the new covenant, and his work, as the only redeemer of God’s elect. His subsequent resurrection means that he was despised and rejected for a purpose.

At the same time, Christ’s future return must also be taken into consideration when thinking about the uniqueness of his paradoxical kingdom. Having been raised for our justification, he has also been exalted to the right hand of God the Father and given all authority and power. Though we do not yet see all things in subjection to Christ’s kingly reign, he is nevertheless presently ruling and reigning, bringing all of his enemies to nothing, the last of whom will be death itself, which will be brought to nothing at his future return. His second coming, then, means that he was despised and rejected for a limited time.

All of this helps us to make sense of what it means to live in Christ’s kingdom in our present moment. Living between Christ’s two advents, we feel the paradox of the kingdom acutely because the purpose of Christ being despised and rejected has been fulfilled but the time of it has not expired. That is to say, Christ reigns now but not yet do we see the fullness of his reign. His kingdom still seems powerfully “weak” and “foolishly” wise.

Therefore, when we pray “thy kingdom come,” we are asking that “That Satan's kingdom may be destroyed; and that the kingdom of grace may be advanced, ourselves and others brought into it, and kept in it; and that the kingdom of glory may be hastened” (WSC 102). In other words, we are asking that the appearances in this world which strain the paradox of the kingdom might be resolved.

Importantly, we should note that the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s explanation of “thy kingdom come” does not teach two kingdoms of Christ, one of grace and one of glory. Rather, it calls us to appreciate the difference in Christ’s kingdom while the time of this present evil age has not expired. The characteristics of Christ’s kingdom are not qualitatively different between what we are experiencing now in what the catechism calls the kingdom of grace and what we will experience in the kingdom of glory. Christ’s kingdom is always long-suffering, universal, powerful, and saving; it is always incomprehensible when evaluated according to the standards of the world and compared to the kingdoms of this world.

The paradoxical appearance of the kingdom of God, then, is only resolved at the end of this age, when every knee shall bow and tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. That is to say, the tension between the kingdom of grace and kingdom of glory is relaxed when the time of Christ’s being despised and rejected expires.

What I hope this reflection does is inject a great deal of encouragement into your view of who Christ is and what he is doing, even if it still appears that the majority of the world despises and rejects him. Our ultimate hope is in his second coming, when all things will be as they ought to be and must be. To switch from the language of kingdom to the language of family, John (1 John 3:2-3 ESV) reminds us, “Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.”

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