The Βασιλεια του Θεου as a Clue to the Social Program of the Apostles

Acts on the Kingdom of God: An HB Classic

strasbourg cathedral facadeSunday 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]

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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22 comments

  1. “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?”

    I have been trying to understand why so many Christians have bought into the idea that it is our mandate to ‘bring in the Kingdom’. I always come back to what Jesus told Nicodemus – ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ and again – ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’

    Please correct me if I am wrong, but is the reason that people do not understand the Kingdom of God, a result of them not seeing it (revelation) through the eyes of faith? Furthermore, would it be a stretch to assume that the people who do not correctly understand the ‘Kingdom’ are not really born again as true faith in Jesus would have eyes to see the Kingdom?

    • Brad,

      I don’t want to say that folk who disagree with me on this are necessarily unregenerate. People are confused about the KOG for a variety of reasons. They want the faith to be “relevant,” or they’ve adopted some a priori notions about what must be the case. In some instances, in the case of mainline (“seven sisters”) liberalism, folk have deliberately re-defined the KOG in immanent terms because an eschatological KOG manifested in the church is no longer credible.

      • Thanks for the reply,
        I am concerned because of what has happened here in South Africa. In the past couple of years a strong divide has grown between the understanding of the gospel and the KOG. It is as if the gospel and the KOG are two totaly different animals. The gospel being the creed and the KOG the deed. The KOG is viewed as the new ‘law’ for those who have accepted the gospel. (although not described in these words)

        • That helps. The Emergent/emerging folk are doing the same thing here, essentially following the paradigm of the mainliners from the early part of the 20th century. Others on the social/theological right are not far from it.

    • Brad,

      I’ve been turning over in my mind the same question that you posed in your first post. You said the following: “why so many Christians have bought into the idea that it is our mandate to ‘bring in the Kingdom?’”

      Here are some of my thoughts with respect to that same question. One of the things I’m seeing about churches and leaders who preach and teach about bringing in the kingdom has to do with the notion of catching a vision. The train of thought is that unless one has the end in sight for what the church will become (and hence my participation in what she becomes), then I won’t have a means for sustaining my faith.

      The other thing that I believe bubbles up within these churches is the desire to satisfy some unmet longing to be apart of something greater for the good of humanity. On the surface that has a good ring to it. Who wants to be known as a Scrooge? Dr. Clark used the word relevant, which is one of the buzz words within the Emergent/Emerging churches in the US. Relevance has eclipsed the call to preach and teach the gospel. It doesn’t sell books, fills pews, or draw people to conferences.

      Lastly, I don’t think an incorrect understanding about the KOG illustrates an unregenerate soul and spirit. Instead, I’d say it reveals at least two things: 1.) poor discipleship; and 2.) spiritual immaturity. I’ll end with a verse from Hebrews 5:13-14 in relation to my second point – “for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”

      Enjoy your week.

  2. Hi Dr. Clark,

    Great synopsis of the kingdom of God motif! It seems very clear from Acts that the apostolic message places the “kingdom” firmly in a place “not of this world”. This fact coupled with the New Covenant coincides beautifully with the new Priesthood, and change of the Law.

    Thanks,

    R Perkins

  3. RSC: I appreciate this post. What do you make of the impact of Paul’s kingdom preaching on the economy of Ephesus in Acts 19?

    • Hi Fowler,

      Good question. The early, post-apostolic Christians experienced a similar phenomenon. I didn’t deny that there are social consequences to the gospel. What I don’t see is a social program in Acts. The message of the apostles focuses on Christ and his kingdom, which is cast in soteric terms not on social renewal.

      In the post-Apostolic period the treatise to Diognetus explained that the Christians had no social program. There continued to be tension however between pagans who profited directly or indirectly from pagan offerings and Christians who, now that they were converted, no longer participated in the sacrifices nor supported the businesses that profited from it.

      The treatise argued that the Christians intended to live quiet and godly lives according to the apostolic teaching.

      • Interesting. Considering that book of Acts clearly shows the office of the Deacons are created specifically to run what you would call “Social Programs.” A new office in the Church is created because the Apostles weren’t not willing but were simply too busy, but they didn’t say “geez, we’re too busy, besides it’s the Gospel anyway, so social work will just have to wait”, but rather, “We’re too busy but these ‘social programs’ need to continue, by the wisdom of God let us create the office of Deacons to specialized in that.”

    • Reformed Sinner, hi!

      I think there is a difference between
      (i) falling into the arms of a savior who brings about a transformation in us which includes a desire to transform society, and
      (ii) thinking the KoG is only or even primarily about transforming society, not to mention
      (iii) being so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly good

      The Apostles were not following (ii) = we’ll do the diaconate work; or (iii) = nobody needs do the diaconate work.

  4. “…In some instances, in the case of mainline (”seven sisters”) liberalism, folk have deliberately re-defined the KOG in immanent terms because an eschatological KOG manifested in the church is no longer credible…”

    Yes, indeed. In fact, the very events that occurred last week in the Twin Cities are glaring evidence of this. The “Gospel reductionism” of the 60’s and 70’s, i.e., pushing aside the OT as no longer applicable, has left the NT wide open for use as a social mandate leaving interpretation as a culturally-relevant instrument for use however one sees fit. So the ELCA, in effect, is no longer preaching the KoG in same sense as the apostolic teaching in Acts.

  5. Thank you Dr. Scott. Kingdom confusion in the church is a huge problem. Much of it begins with disappointment with the church, and asking questions prefaced with, “How could a loving God …” Reading the emergents I have found such bitterness that the world is unchanged by the church: poverty, violence, government, yaddah, yaddah. So they transform the church into “community”, God’s revelation becomes His “dream”, justification means “inclusion”, and it only gets worse in the details. And all intoned with such passion as to be undeniable. This is the stuff that captivates “weak women” (of both genders) in the affluent western church. Unfortunately, this hasn’t hit bottom, yet.

  6. “The disciples, of course, still thinking like dispensationalists, theonomists, and pharisees wanted…”

    Exactly.

    2nd Helvetic Confession, ch.11: Of Jesus Christ, True God and Man, the Only Savior of the World
    “We further condemn Jewish dreams that there will be a golden age on earth before the Day of Judgment, and that the pious, having subdued all their godless enemies, will possess all the kingdoms of the earth. For evangelical truth in Matt., chs. 24 and 25, and Luke, ch. 18, and apostolic teaching in II Thess., ch. 2, and II Tim., chs. 3 and 4, present something quite different.

    Jn.18:36, “Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”

    The apostles grew in understanding:

    2Tim.4:18, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”

    Heb.12:26-28, “At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, ‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.’ This phrase, ‘Yet once more,’ indicates the removal of things that are shaken–that is, THINGS THAT HAVE BEEN MADE–in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe.”

    2Cor.4:18 “As we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”

    2Pet.3:7ff, “But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly….But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. And count the patience of our Lord as salvation….Take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability.”

  7. Luke is consistent. In his gospel, chapter 17, we find another place where the kingdom of God is equated with Christ himself –

    20 Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”

    Scott, your remarks on the Philip passage point the way on the above 2 verses:
    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.”

  8. Sunday night I heard a sermon on Acts 28…[This post was first published in August, 2009]

    Haha, I was gonna say, “No you didn’t, you heard a sermon on Gal 3, I saw you there!”, but then I saw the repost notice…

  9. “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. ”

    I guess you’re right: There’s no obvious evidence of any political agenda on the part of the apostles in the NT. As a matter of fact, when Paul had the opportunity to eradicate slavery in his letter to the Ephesians (6:5-9) he chose not to do so but instead gave it his apostolic endorsement by placing parameters within which it could lawfully be practiced. Dr. Clark, how do we justify slavery as immoral in today’s world given that the NT allows it? Dr. Clark, are you in favor of the practice of slave-owning, at least in theory?

  10. “As a matter of fact, when Paul had the opportunity to eradicate slavery in his letter to the Ephesians (6:5-9) he chose not to do so but instead gave it his apostolic endorsement by placing parameters within which it could lawfully be practiced. Dr. Clark, how do we justify slavery as immoral in today’s world given that the NT allows it? Dr. Clark, are you in favor of the practice of slave-owning, at least in theory?”

    Victor, how much presumption lies in your questioning!

    1. A presumption that Paul systematically and cognitively recognized “Slavery is evil,” “I should oppose it,” and “I refuse to do so.”
    2. A presumption that the letter to Philemon teaches the lawful practice of slavery.
    3. A presumption that the New Testament allows it (please cite instances).

    all of which make your last question akin to “Have you stopped beating your wife, yet?”

  11. Arch, thanks. Can you point me to a NT text that prohibits the practice of slavery? Go ahead. I’ll wait.

    Of course, I’m employing the same absurd argument Dr. Clark uses to demand that Covenanters give a NT proof text for the duty of the Civil Magistrate to establish Christian theism. This is just to say one cannot employ the dispensational hermeneutic of “Prove it from the NT!” (That’s for the baptists to use). My post above was an argumentum ad absurdum, which as you point out is “presumptuous” in the same way that the “demand” to have a NT passage “prove” the rightful duty of the magistrate to promote True Religion is also presumptuous.

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