The Teaching of Jesus Concerning the Kingdom of God and the Church (9)

The Kingdom and the Church

Chapter IX

The conception of the kingdom is common to all periods of our Lord’s teaching, that of the church emerges only at two special points of his ministry as recorded in Matt. 16:18, 18:17. The second of these two passages refers to the church quite incidentally, and, even if it speaks of the Christian church and not, as some have thought, of the Jewish ecclesiastical organization, throws no further light on the conception.

Church’s Subjective Basis

The first on the other hand deals with the church for the express purpose of introducing it as something new, of describing its character and defining its relation to the kingdom. We are fortunate in having so explicit a statement of our Lord on this important matter. The subject should, of course, be approached historically. We must ask ourselves what there was in the situation of that particular juncture of our Lord’s ministry that will account for this solitary and significant declaration about the church. Simon Peter had just made his important confession, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Our Lord thereupon announces that upon Peter, as the first confessor of his Messiahship in the face of the unbelief of the majority of the people, He will build his church εκκλησια. The supposition is not that Peter has here for the first time reached this conviction regarding the Messianic dignity of Jesus, nor even that here for the first time utterance was given to such conviction. Unless we must disbelieve all our Gospels, both had taken place on earlier occasions. But the momentous significance of the present confession lay in this, that it was made at a juncture where many, who had previously followed Jesus, had forsaken Him. It is the rock-character, the steadfastness of Peter that is praised by Jesus, that, when others wavered, he had remained true to his conviction. The revelation he had received from the Father in heaven was not the first disclosure of Jesus’ Messiahship, but a revelation which enabled him, in distinction from the multitude, to discern in Jesus the true attributes of Messiahship, notwithstanding the outward appearance to the contrary.
Peter’s confession, therefore, was distinctly a confession which stood in contrast with the rejection of Jesus by others. From this we may gather that, the church of which Jesus speaks, will have for its peculiarity the recognition of the Messiahship of Jesus in contradistinction from the denial of this Messiahship by those without. But this follows, not only from the situation in which the words were spoken, [but] we may also draw the same conclusion from the tenor of the words themselves. When Jesus says “I will build my church,” he evidently places this church over against another, to which this designation does not apply. The word εκκλησια is the rendering of the Hebrew words Qahalקהל and Edah עדה which latter were the standing names for the congregation of Israel. In such a connection, “my church” can mean nothing else than “the church which by recognizing Me as Messiah will take the place of the present Jewish church.”

Church’s Objective Basis

It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that the new church will rest exclusively on a subjective belief regarding the Messiahship of Jesus. Our Lord says emphatically “I will build,” and thereby appropriates for Himself the objective task of calling this church into existence by His Messianic acts. Though Peter confessing be the foundation, the church is not of Peter’s or of any human making, the Lord Himself will build it. And not only this, He will supremely rule in it, for out of the fullness of His authority He immediately proceeds to invest Peter with the power of the keys: “I will give unto thee.” Objectively considered, therefore, the church is that new congregation taking the place of the old congregation of Israel, which is formed by Jesus as the Messiah and stands under His Messianic rule.

Church is Future

Even this, however, does not fully exhaust the import of our Lord’s statement. It will be noticed, that He refers both the building of the church and the exercise of His authority with regard to it to the future; “I will build” and “I will give.” At the present time of speaking, the church is not yet; if its origin and government depend on the Messiahship of Jesus, then clearly this Messiahship must here be taken in a specific sense, the realization of which also still lay in the future. Our Lord can refer to nothing else than the new exalted, heavenly state upon which His person and work would enter through His death and resurrection and seating at the right hand of God. In order to understand this, we must remember that Jesus, while in one sense conscious of having Messianic authority and doing Messianic work already here on earth, yet in another sense regarded the exercise of His Messianic function as beginning with His state of glory. It was entirely in harmony with Jesus’ own point of view when Peter later declared that God by the resurrection had made Him both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36). Now in this sense, we can say that according to our Lord’s teaching the church could not begin until after He should have entered upon the exalted stage of His Messiahship. That Jesus’ speaking in terms of the future has reference to this and nothing else, may also be gathered from the following fact; the Evangelist tells us that, from that announcement concerning the church onward, Jesus began to show unto his disciples that He must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and the third day be raised up (Matt. 16:21). Plainly then in his mind, there was a connection between the results of his suffering and the origin of the church.

Church & Kingdom

So far we have considered our Lord’s words exclusively in their reference to the church and not inquired into their bearing upon the doctrine of the kingdom. We now observe, that the church, here for the first time formally introduced, is most closely related to the kingdom, which had hitherto occupied the foremost place in Jesus’ teaching. For immediately after the declaration concerning the building of the church, our Lord continues to say unto Peter: “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven,” (v. 19).

Church & Kingdom Not Separate

It would not be impossible, of course, to give a plausible interpretation of this connection on the view, that the church and the kingdom are separate things. Understanding the kingdom as the final kingdom, and the power of the keys as the power to give or deny entrance, the sense might be that to Peter, as the foundation of the church, and therefore to the church, had been given the power in some way or other to open or shut the gates of the heavenly kingdom. On this view, the church would be distinct from the kingdom as here spoken of, would indeed stand related to it as a gate-keeper stands to a house. This is, however, scarcely a possible exegesis so far as the words of the second declaration themselves are concerned. The binding and loosing do not refer to heaven itself, as if heaven were shut or opened, but refer to certain things lying within the sphere of heaven, and not of heaven alone but of earth likewise.

Binding & Loosing

The figure of binding and loosing will have to be understood in a different sense. We have the choice between

  • interpreting it of the binding and loosing of sin, i.e. the imputation and forgiveness of sin, and
  • interpreting it as an instance of the common Jewish parlance which employed “to bind ” in the sense of “to forbid,” “to loose” in the sense of “to allow.”

The former might seem to be favored by Matt. 18:17-18, where the same expressions occur and the connection leads us to think of the process of church discipline.
In Matt. 16, on the other hand, there is nothing to indicate that the figure has this restricted sense; on the contrary, everything points to the most generalizing interpretation that can be put upon it. The keys spoken of are in all probability not the keys of the outer door, but the keys pertaining to the entire house, the keys not of the gate-keeper, but of the house-steward, and therefore symbolize the administration of the affairs of the house in general (cf. Isa. 22:22; Rev. 3:7).
But, whichever of these two last mentioned views we may adopt, in either case, the kingdom of heaven appears as something existing, in part at least, on earth. Peter receives the keys of the kingdom to bind or loose on earth. What he does in the administration of the kingdom here below will be recognized in heaven. Now this promise, immediately following the declaration concerning Peter as the foundation rock of the church, it becomes necessary to assume that in Jesus’ view these two [kingdom & church] are identified. The force of this will be felt by observing that in the two statements made the figure is essentially the same, viz., that of the house. First, the house is represented as in process of building, and Peter as the foundation; then the same house appears as completed and Peter as invested with the keys for administering its affairs. It is plainly excluded that the house should mean one thing in the first statement [i.e. house = church] and another in the second [house = kingdom]. It must be possible, this much we may confidently affirm, to call the church the kingdom. It is another question, to which we shall presently revert, whether the kingdom can under all circumstances be identified with the church.

Church: A Community under the Rule of King Jesus

The kingdom as the church bears the features of a community of men. It appears as a house. This character belonged to the Old Testament church for which that of Jesus is substituted, it also finds expression in the very name εκκλησια, which designates the assembly of free citizens called together to deliberate and take action in matters pertaining to the commonwealth. There are traces in Jesus’ earlier teaching of his having viewed the kingdom under this aspect as an organism of men, although the representation is by no means prominent. Sayings like Matt. 20:25, Mark 9:35, Luke 20:25 at least suggest the idea of the kingdom as a society based on a totally different principle from that governing the kingdoms of this world. In point of fact, Jesus gathered around himself a company of disciples, and it is plausible to assume that He found in their mutual association the beginning of what the kingdom of God was from its very nature intended to be. The two parables of the wheat and the tares and of the fish-net equally imply the thought that the kingdom is an aggregate of men, though their point does not lie in this thought as such, but in the inevitable intermingling of the good and bad until the end. The nearest approach to the later declaration about the church occurs in the expression “His kingdom” of Matt. 13:41. This “kingdom of the Son of man” agrees with the “church of Jesus” in that both phrases make the kingdom a body of men placed under the Messiah as their ruler.

How the Church Differs from the Kingdom

From the foregoing, it appears that, if the church represents an advance beyond the internal invisible kingdom, which had hitherto figured so largely in our Lord’s teaching, the advance must be sought in something else than the mere fact of its being a body of disciples. The advance lies in two points.
First Difference:
In the first place, the body of disciples previously existing must now take the place of the Old Testament church and therefore receive some form of external organization. This the kingdom had not hitherto possessed. It had been internal and invisible not merely in its essence, but to this essence there had been lacking the outward embodiment. Jesus now in speaking of the house and the keys of the house, of binding and loosing on earth, and of church discipline, makes provision for this.
Second Difference:
In the second place, our Lord gives to understand that the new stage upon which his Messiahship is now about to enter, will bring to the kingdom a new influx of supernatural power and thus make out of it, not only externally but also internally, that new thing which he calls his church.

  • First Illustration of the Second Difference

It is possible to find this referred to in the words about the gates of Hades, which immediately follow the Lord’s declaration that he will build his church. According to some, these words imply a conflict between Hades as the realm of death and the church as the sphere of life. They then would mean that death will not be able to conquer the church, or that the church will be able to conquer death, and the ground for this promise would be that Jesus will soon win a victory over death and fill his church with unconquerable life (Rev. 1:18).
Probably, however, the correct rendering is “the gates of Hades shall not surpass it.” The gates of Hades seem to have been a figure for the highest conceivable strength, because no one can break through them. On this rendering our Lord simply means to say that the church will not be excelled in strength by the strongest that is known; the figure is a further elaboration of the idea that the church is built upon a rock.

  • Second Illustration of the Second Difference

There are, however, other sayings belonging to the same closing period of our Lord’s ministry, in which he predicts the coming of the kingdom with a new, previously unknown power. In Matt. 16:28; Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27; Matt. 26:64; Mark 14:62; Luke 22:69, Jesus speaks of a coming of the Son of man in His kingdom, of a coming of the kingdom of God with power, which will take place in the near future, so that some of the people then living will witness it. A common way of interpreting these sayings is to refer them to the final coming of the kingdom at the end of the world. Those, however, who adopt this view, must assume that our Lord was mistaken as to the nearness of the event in question and hence give up the infallibility of His teaching.
Another exegesis is quite possible. We can interpret these sayings of the coming of the kingdom in the church. The strong terms in which they are clothed do not absolutely forbid this. It must be acknowledged that these terms resemble the language in which elsewhere the final coming of the kingdom is spoken of. It is a coming of the kingdom with power, a coming of Jesus in his kingdom, even a coming of Jesus with the clouds of heaven. But these expressions become more easily explainable, if we endeavor to realize what the church in her first appearance was to be, and how the immediate future presented itself to Jesus from His own personal point of view. In the early church, there were to be many extraordinary manifestations of the Spirit’s power, so extraordinary indeed as to anticipate in some respects the phenomena that will be observed at the end of the world. And, even apart from this, the presence of the Spirit in the church, in its more ordinary form of operation, is something sufficiently marvelous and stupendous to justify the strong terms employed. The church actually has within herself the powers of the world to come. She is more than the immanent kingdom as it existed before Jesus’ exaltation. She forms an intermediate link between the present life and the life of eternity. Here we can best observe how thoroughly supernaturalistic our Lord’s conception of the church-form of the kingdom is. And our Lord looked upon the appearance of this church from a point of view that was peculiarly His own. He was to be its Lord and King. Now to Him there was not that sharp division between the church-kingdom and the final kingdom which there is for us who live on earth. For Him, the consummation of the kingdom in which all is fulfilled began with His resurrection and ascension. It is therefore not unnatural that He should speak of this approaching state in terms, which, in themselves considered, might make us think of the final coming of the kingdom.
Besides these passages we have the statement of Matt. 18:20, in which our Lord promises to be present in the midst of his disciples in a peculiar manner, and which throws light upon the idea of a coming of his which shall precede the final coming.
But especially do the Savior’s last discourses preserved for us in the Gospel according to John afford us help in apprehending his meaning on this point. Here he plainly represents himself as coming to the disciples in the Spirit, and that in a way quite distinct from the manner in which he will come at the end of the world. It is a coming which the disciples will witness, whilst to others he will not reveal himself. It cannot be said to refer to the bodily appearances of Jesus after the resurrection, for it is intended to result in an abiding presence. Here, therefore, we have something quite analogous to the Synoptical statements previously quoted, the only difference being that the conception of the kingdom itself is wanting here as elsewhere in John.

Kingdom & Invisible Church

From what has been said it appears that every view which would keep the kingdom and the church separate as two entirely distinct spheres is not in harmony with the trend of our Lord’s teaching. 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. So far as extent of membership is concerned, Jesus plainly leads us to identify the invisible church and the kingdom. It is impossible to be in the one without being in the other. We have our Lord’s explicit declaration in John 3:3-5, to the effect that nothing less than the new birth can enable man to see the kingdom or enter into it. The kingdom, therefore, as truly as the invisible church is constituted by the regenerate; the regenerate alone experience in themselves its power, cultivate its righteousness, enjoy its blessings. It is, of course, quite possible, while recognizing this identity of extent, to make distinctions as to the point of view from which the regenerate are called the kingdom and the church. Various attempts in this direction have been made. It may be said that the kingdom designates believers in their relation to God as ruler, the church believers in their separateness from the world and their organic union with one another. Or, that the church designates believers in their attitude of worship towards God, the kingdom, believers in their ethical activities towards one another. Or again, that the church designates the people of God from the point of view of their calling to be God’s instrument in preparing the way for and introducing the ideal order of things, the kingdom, the same people of God so far as they possess the ideal order in principle realized among themselves. These and similar distinctions have their doctrinal usefulness and are unobjectionable, so long as they do not obscure the fact that the kingdom, as well as the church, is circumscribed by the line of regeneration, and that the invisible church itself is in that which determines its inner essence, its relation to God and Christ, a true kingdom, since it consists of those over whom the Messiah rules as the representative of God.

Kingdom & Visible Church

But what about the relation of the visible church to the kingdom? Here again we must first of all insist upon it, that our Lord looked upon the visible church as a veritable embodiment of His kingdom. Precisely because the invisible church realizes the kingship of God, the visible church must likewise partake of this character. We have seen that the power of binding and loosing given to the church is described under the figure of the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Our Lord, in conferring this power, acts in the capacity of King over the visible church. In Matt. 13:41, the kingdom of the Son of Man, out of which the angels in the last day will remove all things that cause stumbling and them that do iniquity, is nothing else but the visible church. The visible church is constituted by the enthronement of Christ as the King of glory. Out of the fullness of His royal authority, He gave, immediately before ascending, the great commission to preach the gospel and disciple the nations and instituted the sacrament of baptism. We must say, therefore, that the kingdom-forces which are at work, the kingdom-life which exists in the invisible sphere, find expression in the kingdom-organism of the visible church. That Christ is King in this church and all authority exercised within any church-body derives from Him is an important principle of church government, which those who endeavor to distinguish between the kingdom of God and the visible church do not always sufficiently keep in mind.

Kingdom Wider than Church

From this, however, it does not necessarily follow, that the visible church is the only outward expression of the invisible kingdom. 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. This the parable of the leaven plainly teaches. These various forms of human life have each their own sphere in which they work and embody themselves. There is a sphere of science, a sphere of art, a sphere of the family and of the state, a sphere of commerce and industry. Whenever one of these spheres comes under the controlling influence of the principle of the divine supremacy and glory, and this outwardly reveals itself, there we can truly say that the kingdom of God has become manifest.
Now our Lord in his teaching seldom makes explicit reference to these things. He contented himself with laying down the great religious and moral principles which ought to govern the life of man in every sphere. Their detailed application it was not his work to show. But we may safely affirm two things:
On the one hand, his doctrine of the kingdom was founded on such a profound and broad conviction of the absolute supremacy of God in all things, that he could not but look upon every normal and legitimate province of human life as intended to form part of God’s kingdom.
On the other hand, it was not his intention that this result should be reached by making human life in all its spheres subject to the visible church. It is true that under the Old Covenant something of this nature had existed. In the theocracy the church had dominated the life of the people of God in all its extent. State and church were in it most intimately united. Jesus on more than one occasion gave to understand that in this respect at least the conditions of the Old Covenant were not to be perpetuated (cf. Matt. 22:21; John 18:36; 19:11).
And what is true of the relation between church and state, may also be applied to the relation between the visible church and the various other branches into which the organic life of humanity divides itself. It is entirely in accordance with the spirit of Jesus’ teaching to subsume these under the kingdom of God and to co-ordinate them with the visible church as true manifestations of this kingdom, in so far as the divine sovereignty and glory have become in them the controlling principle. But it must always be remembered, that the latter can only happen, when all these, no less than the visible church, stand in living contact with the forces of regeneration supernaturally introduced into the world by the Spirit of God. While it is proper to separate between the visible church and such things as the Christian state, Christian art, Christian science, etc., these things, if they truly belong to the kingdom of God, grow up out of the regenerated life of the invisible church.

Kingdom & Church Discipline

As already stated, this is a subject on which our Lord’s teaching does not bring any explicit disclosures and which can only be treated by way of inference. It has sometimes been thought that the parables of the wheat and the tares and of the fish-net contain an explicit declaration concerning the kingdom as a wider sphere than the church. This is assumed, because these parables imply that in the kingdom the good and the evil are to be allowed to intermingle, which cannot be the rule in the church, as the obligation to exercise church discipline plainly shows. Historically interpreted, however, these parables do not warrant such an inference. The current doctrine of the kingdom, shared up to that point by the disciples, assumed that the very first act of God at the coming of the kingdom would consist in an absolute and eternal separation between the good and the evil. This assumption was natural so long as no distinction between the two stages of the history of the kingdom had been made. When Jesus introduced this distinction, it became necessary to emphasize that not everything which was true of the final appearance of the kingdom could therefore also be predicated of its present, invisible mode of coming. As a warning to this effect, these two parables must be interpreted. Our Lord desires to make plain that, while the kingdom is now actually coming, a complete separation between the evil and the good cannot be effected until the end of the world. During the present age, the kingdom must partake of the limitations and imperfections to which a sinful environment exposes it. Of the church, as the externally organized kingdom, this is eminently true. It exists upon the field of the world. At no time until the very last will it be entirely purified of all evil elements.
This truth, however, in no wise interferes with the possibility nor absolves from the duty of church discipline. The process to which our Lord refers in Matt. 18:17 is not intended for effecting an absolute separation between the good and the evil, and thus rendering the church as ideally pure as she will be in the final state of the kingdom. Its proximate [immediate] end is the self-preservation of the church in that state of holiness which befits her profession, and would be destroyed by the exercise of religious fellowship with such as remain unrepentant in the face of open sin. Its ulterior [less-obvious] end is remedial, consisting in the salvation of the sinner thus left to himself. Both ends can be pursued without forgetting or denying the lesson taught in the parables, that it is not given to men to judge the heart, and that God alone in the day of judgment will infallibly remove from the church all elements which, while simulating its outward appearance, do not belong to it in the inner spiritual reality.


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