Sunday night I heard a sermon on Acts 28 during which my attention was drawn to the way Luke uses the expression, “βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ” (Kingdom of God). I was struck by eschatological character of Luke’s conception (and by implication, Paul’s conception, as Luke reports his preaching).
That passage pushed me to go back to the beginning of Acts to see how the expression occurs in the rest of the book. Though we rightly think of Matthew’s gospel as the “kingdom” gospel, it is interesting to note that Luke begins Acts by summarizing Jesus’ instruction of the disciples “περὶ τῆς βασιλείας τοῦ θεοῦ” (about the kingdom of God). The disciples, of course, still thinking like dispensationalists, theonomists, and pharisees wanted to know when Jesus was going to establish an earthly dominion. How did Jesus answer their query? By taking visible, bodily leave of them! The ascension is Jesus’ response to the disciples’ lust for this-worldly power, for the restitution of the Mosaic-Davidic-Solmonic theocracy. His answer to the query was also, of course, the promise of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the establishment of the visible church through the ministry of Word and sacrament and confirmed, in the apostolic period, by signs and wonders.
Luke characterizes Philip the Evangelist’s preaching ministry (Acts 8:12) with the expression: “εὐαγγελιζομένῳ” (preaching the Good News) “περὶ τῆς βασιλείας τοῦ θεοῦ” (about the kingdom of God). Luke quickly fills in the blank as to what he means by “kingdom,” however, as he connects the message about the kingdom of God not to anyone or anything else but “τοῦ ὀνόματος Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ,” i.e. “of the name of Jesus the Christ.” In other words, Philip’s Good News was about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Luke further narrows the conception of the “βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ” by connecting it to the administration of the sacrament (i.e., the covenant sign and seal) of salvation: baptism. The essential character of the Kingdom of God is eschatological but, in Acts thus far, its only earthly manifestation is Christ-centered and ecclesiastical in character.
In 14:22 the fundamentally eschatological character of the “βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ” is made clear when the preaching of Paul and Barnabas is characterized in terms of entering the Kingdom of God through “many tribulations.” Immediately, the message is contextualized in terms of the visible, institutional church (v. 23) where elders are appointed with prayer and fasting. The instruments of the “βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ” are counter-intuitive and decidedly spiritual. For Luke to think about the kingdom is to think in eschatological terms but when he thinks about its manifestation in the earth, he thinks of the visible, institutional church.
Without a broader context, the brevity of the references in Acts 19:8 and 20:25 might be enigmatic but as it is, we do not have to guess at the content of the Apostle’s evangelical preaching. He was pointing his hearers in the synagogues and in the churches to Jesus the Messiah, the fulfillment of the promises and the ascended and reigning king who earned his throne with blood and a cross. That this is so is made certain by Acts 28:23:
From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God (διαμαρτυρόμενος τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ) and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets.
The book ends much as it began: with preaching about kingdom of God. This time it is not our Lord but it is the Apostle Paul. We find him in prison but the Kingdom is not imprisoned nor is the good news of the kingdom imprisoned. Paul proclaimed the “βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ” which Luke identifies, epexegetically, as “teaching about Jesus Christ” (Acts 28:31). Indeed, it seems to have been Paul’s burden to continue to do exactly what our Lord himself began to do just before his ascension. To convince folk that the “βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ” is not an earthly program obtained by planning and administration or by the proper distribution of goods (even though there was a program for poverty relief within the visible church), or even of healing (which certainly occurred as part of the ministry of the Word), but it is fundamentally other-worldly, heavenly (located where Jesus the King is!) and that it has broken into history in the person of Jesus the Messiah and in the outpouring of the Spirit and his work of the ascended Lord through his Spirit in Apostles through the gospel. Whoever is united to Christ by faith alone, by sovereign gift of the Spirit alone, is a citizen of his kingdom (Phil 3). That kingdom is consistently administered in Acts by the preaching of the Word and the administration of sacraments.
There is no obvious evidence of any political or cultural agenda associated with the “βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ” in Acts. At every point when the Apostles had opportunity to “speak truth to power,” to challenge the socio-economic or political or cultural status quo they refused. According to many modern conceptions of the Kingdom of God, the disciples failed rather badly to “bring in the kingdom” or to restore it. Instead Paul insisted on preaching the foolishness of the crucified Messiah and the foolishness of his resurrection. Terrible way to take back a culture I know, but there it is. Perhaps the apostles learned something at Pentecost? Perhaps they learned that the kingdom isn’t something we bring in? Perhaps they learned that it isn’t a matter of culture or earthly power or influence, but of the inbreaking of the power of salvation through faith alone in Christ the king alone, in whom alone the kingdom is embodied and in whom alone the kingdom comes in this world through the proclamation of the gospel?
[This post was first published in August, 2009]