Jun 24, 2013

The Cross and the Kingdom

by Doug Wightman and Martin Wightman

Imagine you are living in a beautiful house. The house is spacious and full of people. In the east end of this mansion, there is a spectacular view of the sunrise, if you care to wake up early enough to see it. On the west side: an equally stunning vista at sunset. The residents, though, have begun to argue. Those in the east end start talking among themselves: “The sunrise begins the day; it is full of pinks and yellows. It’s not just breathtaking, it is the first, best way of seeing the world out there.” Those who live in the west end protest: “Looking west at the end of the day is mesmerizing. The red and orange and blue – really, who needs the sunrise when you have this?”

It’s an odd argument to be having.

As Christians, we are one house, so we are told. Naturally, there are different viewpoints on all sorts of issues, but our foundation is the same. But within this house there are two distinct ways of looking at the world “out there”.

We are not speaking of denominations, but about fundamental approaches to Christian life and ministry that are often rooted in our personalities and our experiences of life. Let’s give names to these groups, and, in broad strokes, define them. We’ll call the first group “Cross Christians” and the second group “Kingdom Christians.” Cross Christians look out on the world and see sinners who are unreconciled to God; human beings who need salvation before dying. Eternity awaits! But what will it bring for all the people out there? Kingdom Christians look out on the world and see human beings living in God’s world, but with all sorts of damage brought to that good creation. Life awaits, but what about all the pain and brokenness and sin and injustice? What does Jesus say about those things?

Both groups have strong Biblical support for their positions, and both feel that their emphasis is very important in the overall Biblical teaching. And both are right. The problem is that, instead of being united with each other, some members of each camp push their emphasis in such a way as to minimize the other perspective; emphasizing the sunrise at the expense of the sunset.

The practical outcome can be that Christians who should be together, and could be together, are not together; what ought to be a solid alliance is only an uneasy truce. Further, some of these Christians can become suspicious or defensive or argumentative — perhaps you have met some on one or the other end of the house. (Unfortunate souls may have met some from both ends of the house!) We are convinced that this is neither good nor necessary. We believe that both viewpoints are correct in what they claim, and only go astray if they deny the validity of the other. We want to show, briefly, that both truly are solidly rooted in Scripture. And, working from the principle that Scripture does not contradict itself, we want to affirm that the great themes of Cross and Kingdom do indeed complement each other — that each side needs the other for the greatest health and strength of the church.

Consider what God’s Word says. You could start by looking up the word “kingdom” in a concordance. It occurs frequently in the Bible, doesn’t it? More particularly, it occurs with great frequency in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Why does this matter? Because the fundamental message of Jesus had to do with the “kingdom of God.” Matthew, Mark and Luke all portray Jesus as announcing the good news of the kingdom of God (sometimes called the kingdom of heaven, especially in Matthew). Not only did he announce it, Jesus told many parables about it. He used similes: “The kingdom of God is like … ” He talked about those who were the greatest in the kingdom, he talked about entering the kingdom, he talked about the nearness of the kingdom, and he even used the expression “my kingdom.” John’s gospel, although much different in style from the first three, nevertheless includes important kingdom teaching. These statistics explain why some readers who focus on Jesus find the theme of the kingdom of God pervasive – not just a theme, but the theme.

It gets more interesting. Looking further at a concordance, you can see that the occurrence of the word “kingdom” is much less frequent after the gospels. In fact, both Mark and Luke have more occurrences of the word “kingdom” than are found from Acts to Revelation, inclusive. This does not mean that the idea is no longer important in those other books, but the difference is striking. Something else emerges as we scan our concordances and the New Testament: the death of Jesus (as seen in such words as “cross,” “blood,” “death,” and “sacrifice,” for example) assumes much greater prominence from the book of Acts onwards. If a reader concentrates on, for example, the letters of Paul, or the letter to the Hebrews, he/she will naturally conclude that the death of Christ — and its explosive ramifications — is the primary theme of the New Testament.

Here is a simple observation: the Biblical teaching about the cross, no matter how important the cross actually is, was not likely to be very extensive before the actual event. Although Jesus predicted his death, and explained some of its meaning to his puzzled disciples, they did not understand it very well, and (to some extent), didn’t believe that Jesus was right. It was only with the resurrection of Jesus that the message of the cross became understood by the apostles, and made sense as a presentation of God’s good news. It is important to understand that before the cross, Jesus was proclaiming good news — the good news of God’s saving intervention in history — but that he used the language of the kingdom, which would have been very familiar to his listeners, raised as they were with the Old Testament Scriptures.

The book of Acts uses transitional language, simply saying that the good news was about Jesus. By the time we get to the book of Romans, the term “good news” is relatively rare; it has been replaced, in a sense, by the word “gospel.” (And, of course, the word “gospel” means “good news.”) The New Testament sequence is something like this: the good news of the kingdom of God, the good news about Jesus, the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The good news in the New Testament is about Jesus Christ, his kingdom, and his cross. They are all indivisible. The New Testament authors were writing in the midst of this unpacking process, grappling with the unexpected way that God, in Jesus, had become the Messiah. There is a King, there is a kingdom, and there is a way of entering that kingdom. We are not born as citizens, and our sin disqualifies us from citizenship. In his cross, Jesus provides the way for us to enter his kingdom family. This is God’s way of doing it; we are required to repent of sin and believe in King Jesus. The message of the cross speaks clearly to those who know they are outside the kingdom, know why, and want to find their way in. From a different (not contradictory!) perspective, the message of the kingdom speaks to those who know something is drastically wrong with the world, and long for a new order, ruled by a good King, characterized by justice and peace.

Surely these themes are not in opposition. The truth that they belong together can be seen from the phrase that begins the majority of the New Testament epistles: “Grace and peace to you… .” Grace is God’s free favour to undeserving sinners, nowhere seen with more clarity than in the atoning cross of his Son. Peace is the resulting state of health, well-being, and harmony that Jesus envisaged when he prayed, “your kingdom come.” He not only prayed for it, he achieved it in his ministry and death, and will bring it to completion when he returns. Cross and kingdom, kingdom and cross. Christians today need to connect these themes, not separate them; see their Biblical underpinnings, not close their eyes to what God has set forth, and rejoice that both are completely part of God’s big story. One Christian might find the kingdom theme deeply motivating and spend his life working for justice in a particular area. Another Christian might find the idea of the cross and justification so moving and powerful that she spends her life telling others about the Easter story, and what it means for eternity. Both are doing God’s work, in the way that makes sense to them. And, though different, they can be fully united, each recognizing the value of the other, and both seeing the bigger, wider picture.

To return to the house once more: we must be people who, together as a body, don’t just theorize about which view of the world is the best or the more urgent. We need to be thinking and living “outside the house,” interacting with the world in a way that honours our unique wiring as individuals, and participating corporately in both evangelism and the restoring of justice and peace, for now and forever.


  1. Maybe besides the east and west ends of this house are many other rooms in the middle that have to do with spreading the forgiveness of the cross to forgiving others in the house and making peace where there was no peace (in Jesus' kingdom/house of disciples), and in showing justice and mercy to the poor and neglected ones in the house. If that all happened, and that's a big if, then all of that could likewise begin to happen out of the house.

  2. Doug and Martin, An interesting illustration of the house with sunrise and sunset. You might find Stephen J. Nichols' book "Heaven on Earth" to be along the same thinking. The following is written on a book web site; "This book focuses on key sermons by Jonathan Edwards, showing readers how his insights can be applied to the challenges of living the Christian life in the twenty-first century. Edwards reminds us of our duty to live on earth in light of heaven and to endeavor to bring the realities and the beauty of heaven to earth-even if only in miniature. This book is for all believers wondering how to live on earth with a view of heaven, and those familiar with Edwards’s works will have a special appreciation for this study." Perhaps even more insight can be gained from a reformed point of view?