The Essence of the Kingdom Continued: The Kingdom as a State of Blessedness
God’s Glory & Man’s Welfare
We have already seen, that not the thought of man’s welfare, but that of the glory of God was supreme in our Lord’s teaching concerning the kingdom. While emphasizing this, we must not forget, however, that to Him this thought was inseparably connected with the idea of the greatest conceivable blessedness for man. That God should reign was in his view so much the only natural, normal state of things, that he could not conceive of any true happiness apart from it, nor of it without a concomitant state of happiness for those who give to God the first and the highest place. This is, in general, the connection between the kingship of God as a rule over man, and the kingdom of God as a possession for man, a connection not obscurely indicated in the saying, Matt. 6:33. With the kingship of God all other things must come, for, as Paul later expressed it: “If God be for us, who shall be against us?”
God’s Grace Flows from His Kingship
That this thought is not more frequently and more directly formulated admits of easy explanation. In deriving the state of blessedness from the character and will of God, it was so natural to think of the divine fatherhood as its source that the reference to God’s kingship would scarcely suggest itself. Accordingly, we find that the kingdom as a state of blessedness is represented as the Father’s gift to the little flock rather than that of the King (Luke 12:32; cf. also Matt. 20:32). It was quite possible, however, to reach the idea of blessedness by way of direct inference from that of the divine kingship. The Oriental king often bestows with royal munificence all manner of gifts upon his subjects. Illustrations of this both from sacred and other history will easily occur. Thus Jesus also speaks of the kingdom under the figure of a banquet prepared by the king as a marriage feast for his son (Matt. 22:2). Nor should it be forgotten that the kingdom had been for Israel the instrument of gracious help in times of distress and a source of great national prosperity. The kingship had been in its ideal intent, and to some extent, at least in its better days, also in effect a democratic institution, to which the poor and the oppressed and miserable looked for aid and protection. There was therefore an easy transition from the idea of kingship to that of grace and salvation.
The inestimable value of the kingdom from man’s point of view finds clearest expression in the parable of the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price. In both cases, it is emphasized that the finder sells all his possessions in order to secure this one transcendent good (cf. Matt. 19:12; Mark 9:43-47; Luke 18:29). That God himself regards the kingdom in this light appears from the fact of his having prepared it for his own from eternity (Matt. 25:34). The preparation from eternity shows, that the kingdom is the supreme embodiment of the divine gracious purpose.
Hence also the kingdom is said to be “inherited.” Because the kingdom thus includes all that is truly valuable and precious, our Lord in connection with the kingdom-parables pronounces the disciples blessed who see and hear the truth concerning it. In doing this they are brought into immediate contact with the fulfillment of all the Old Testament promises. What many prophets and righteous men in vain desired to see and hear, is theirs in actual possession (Matt. 13:16,17).
Looked at concretely, the blessings in which the kingdom consists are partly negative, partly positive in character.
Negatively, the kingdom includes the deliverance from all evil. Foremost among the blessings pertaining to this side stands the forgiveness of sins. Prophecy had already spoken of this as an important element in the blessedness of the Messianic age (Jer. 31:34). That Jesus considered this not merely as a preparation for the kingdom, but counted it of the very substance of the same may be seen from Matt. 18:23ff., where the kingdom of heaven is likened unto a certain king, who graciously forgives the debt of his servant and releases him. Hence also the sequence in the Lord’s Prayer, where the petition for the coming of the kingdom is followed first by that for the accomplishment of the will of God and next by that for the forgiveness of debts. Positively there corresponds to this the gift of righteousness, which cannot but carry with itself a sense of the highest spiritual delight and satisfaction for those who obtain it. The mind relieved from the burden of sin and assured of the divine acceptance enters upon a state of profound peace and rest (Matt. 11:28,29; Mark 5:34; Luke 7:50).
The positive side of the blessedness received in the kingdom is chiefly described in the two important conceptions of sonship and of life. On these, therefore, we must briefly dwell at this point. While the two attributes of kingship and fatherhood mark two distinct elements in Jesus’ conception of God, He certainly did not place them wide apart, much less regard them as intrinsically opposed to each other. The ease with which he passes over from the one to the other; e.g. in the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer, shows that, to His mind, the two are perfectly harmonious attributes of the divine nature. There is a sense in which the effects of God’s fatherhood can be subsumed under the kingdom-idea. As on the one hand, the kingship might frequently originate through extension of the patriarchal authority beyond the limits of the tribe, so on the other hand the king could continue to sustain the relation of a father to his people. In point of fact, the Old Testament represents Jehovah as by one and the same act becoming Israel’s King and Israel’s Father, viz., by the deliverance of the exodus (Ex. 4:22; Deut. 32:6; Isa. 43:15).
First Term: Sonship
That the place which belongs to sonship as one of the blessings of the kingdom is not always recognized with sufficient clearness finds its explanation in a widely current misunderstanding of our Lord’s teaching on sonship. He is frequently interpreted as teaching the indiscriminate sonship of all men. Sonship then would be something which did not in any sense originate with the redemptive relation to God or with the kingdom of God. It is easy here to go to an extreme as well in absolutely denying as in indiscriminately affirming that our Lord made men the sons of God by nature. Some of his utterances, like the parable of the prodigal son, plainly imply that notwithstanding the sinner’s estrangement from God a filial relationship continues to exist. The whole trend of his teaching is that redemption restores what has been disturbed by sin. But, granting this, we must not overlook two important considerations which would inevitably lead him to emphasize the newness of the sonship which is enjoyed in the redemptive state.
On the one hand, Jesus had too profound a knowledge of the seriousness of sin not to recognize that it must render man unworthy and incapable of sonship in the full, original sense.
On the other hand, he had also too high a conception of the transcendent perfection of the kingdom not to find in it in this respect as well as in others something that would far surpass any religious privilege that man could call his own by nature.
The kingdom neutralizes the effects of sin, but it does far more than this. It carries man to the highest limit of knowledge and love and service and enjoyment of God of which he is capable, and nothing less than the attainment of this our Lord associates with the term “sonship.” The words recorded in Luke 20:36, “They are equal unto the angels; and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection,” suffice to show that sonship to God appeared to him as the acme [highest point] rather than as the common level of religious privilege (cf. Matt. 5:9).
Fatherhood of God
And not only the sonship of man, even the fatherhood of God admits of this high and exclusive application. For Jesus constantly speaks to the disciples of “your Father” (Matt. 6:32). “The Father” in the Synoptical Gospels always denotes God in relation to “the Son,” i.e. Jesus specifically.
In the Fourth Gospel, where “The Father” is also used with reference to the disciples generally, this is not based on a conception of universal fatherhood, but on the thought that the relation originally existing between God and Jesus is extended to the disciples likewise. This, therefore, is the most emphatic assertion of the unique value of sonship. And this value was not confined in our Lord’s estimation to the moral sphere, as one-sided modern representations sometimes make out. Sonship involves more than moral likeness to God, although this is, of course, one of its chief elements. Its rich religious meaning may be best perceived from the jubilant words in which Jesus speaks of his own filial relation to the Father (Matt. 11:27), which, while unique in one sense, must yet bear a general resemblance to the sonship of the disciples. The most perfect mutual knowledge, the most direct communion of life, the most absolute unity of purpose, the joint possession of consummate blessedness and peace between God and man, all this forms part of the sonship in which the kingdom consists. The highest gift that can be bestowed on the pure in heart is that in the final kingdom they shall have the beatific filial vision of God face to face.
Second Term: Life
The second comprehensive term by which Jesus describes the blessedness of the kingdom is that of life. The Old Testament idea of life has for its prominent characteristics not so much the elements of growth and activity but rather those of prosperity and happiness in the possession of the favor of God. To this our Lord in His Synoptical teaching in the main adheres; only, in harmony with the prevailing Jewish usage, He projects the idea into the future, life being here equivalent to the sum total of the blessings and enjoyments of the final kingdom. Still, even in the Synoptical teaching, we find life occasionally spoken of as a present religious possession, and, therefore, as in its very essence a spiritual state (Matt. 8:22; Luke 15:24,32; 20:38). A present kingdom necessarily carries with itself a present enjoyment of life. And, in the same degree as this is the case, life also tends to become a life in the subjective sense of the word, a name for the believer’s spiritual growth and activity, something to be “lived” as well as “inherited.” In the discourses of the Fourth Gospel, we can clearly observe how our Lord develops the idea in these two directions. His classical definition of life is found in the so-called high-priestly prayer: to know the only true God, and him whom He did send, even Jesus Christ (John 17:3). The knowledge of God here spoken of is, of course, something which in principle is already imparted in the present, although its consummate possession still lies in the future. It is a knowledge which is far more than mere intellectual cognition; it includes that practical acquaintance, that affectionate apprehension, which arise from congeniality [pleasant] of nature and the highest spiritual love. Hence what introduces into it is not a process of instruction, but a birth from above, or a re-birth, whereby the fundamental character is changed, so that from flesh, which naturally lives for this lower, earthly, sensual world, it becomes spirit, which naturally lives for the world of heaven and for God. Because Jesus is the personal representative and embodiment of this heavenly life on earth, he is the way unto God (John 14:6).
We see, therefore, how thoroughly this life, which constitutes man’s blessed possession of the kingdom, is dominated by the thought of communion with God, as its chief source of enjoyment. In principle, however, the same thing is implied in some of the Synoptical sayings cited above, which approach the conception of life as something to be developed in man. When the prodigal in his hunger remembers the riches of his Father’s house, he is said to have “come to himself.” His return to the Father is described as a change from death into life: “This thy brother was dead, and is alive again, and was lost and is found,” (Luke 15:32). Thus the re-adoption to sonship and the restoration to life are seen to coincide. If Jesus found in both, the essence of the kingdom-privilege and kingdom-blessedness, which can be enjoyed on earth, we cannot doubt that he also regarded them as supreme among the treasures and delights of the final kingdom. As the point of departure for his kingdom-conception lay in God, in the active exercise of God’s royal sway, so its point of arrival lies in God, in God’s gift of Himself to man for everlasting possession. It is the teaching of Jesus, as well as of Paul, that from God and through God and unto God are all things.