Fit For A King
Some of you who looked at the title of my address may think I have been co-opted by the development department. That is not the case. I would like for us to look at how our lives at seminary can get us fit to serve the king. In this year of the Olympics some of us have been reminded of what it takes to get fit, to get into decent physical shape. I would like for us to consider how we can become fit to serve our king, the Lord Jesus, while we study at seminary. I will focus my remarks on the nature of the kingdom of God and the implications of the kingdom for some aspects of seminary training.
Those of you who have been introduced to Ridderbos may think a discussion of the kingdom involves a long, tedious and boring excursion. I hope that is not the case. What I have to say will not be as long and I hope not as tedious Ridderbos. Neither will my remarks provide you with the deep insight or exhaustive detail about the nature of the kingdom. My focus will be on application rather than on explication.
Of central significance to the kingdom is its theocentric character. As Ridderbos reminds us: "This absolutely theocentric character of the kingdom of God in Jesus' preaching also implies that its coming consists entirely in God's own action and is perfectly dependent on his activity...the kingdom of heaven is, therefore, absolutely transcendent in its origin, it is the revelation of God's glory." Coming 24
The kingdom envisions the rule or reign of God and the domain over which he exercises his rule. I agree with scholars who argue the idea of kingdom in the NT focuses primarily on the exercise of rule by the Lord Jesus and the idea of domain is secondary. At the same time, I think we need to be aware that the worldview of Judaism was that the domain of God was the backdrop for the coming of the kingdom. This idea goes back to Deuteronomy where Moses sets the rule of Yahweh over against the kings and despots of Canaan. God will and does rule over his land and his people can be confident he will conquer his enemies. Thompson in his introductory comments on Deuteronomy puts it thusly: "Israel's Lord was the Lord of the whole universe who had a sovereign claim not merely upon His people Israel but on the whole world." Thompson 70. If we are to understand the kingdom and see ourselves as citizens of the kingdom of God, we will need to be those who submit to the rule of our Lord.
The kingdom is a present reality with a future fulfillment. For those of you who have engaged in NT studies, you have no doubt been impressed with the phrase 'the already and not yet.' This is not simply a slogan adopted by NT exegetes; it is a description of an essential feature of the Kingdom. It is a present reality, we live in the kingdom, but the wonder and glory of the kingdom is still before us at the return of Jesus. The central core of the kingdom is the messianic King, namely, the Lord Jesus Christ. I shall address this more later.
Even though the kingdom is not the same as the church, the kingdom cannot be understood apart from the church. Zorn helpfully summarizes this view: "...the Church, though an integral part of the Kingdom, may not, however, be identified with the Kingdom." 9 The church is the place where we will most fully experience the present reality of the kingdom. Vos argues that members of the invisible church are members of the kingdom of God. In the visible church we have one form which the kingdom assumes.
One of the frustrating things about seminary is that we tend to spend all of our time getting ready to do what we see as our ministry. For many the most difficult part of seminary is the waiting, the anticipation of being able to get out there and do what we were called to do.
Let me suggest you turn your frustration into a positive learning experience. If the kingdom is now and still to come, then learn more about that phenomenon in your seminary days. Try to live the life of ministry while you await graduation and full-time engagement in your chosen ministry. In other words learn to appreciate the "already and not yet" as you long for opportunities to engage in your service. If you do so, you will be better prepared to teach others what the "already not and yet" of kingdom theology means. In seminary we need to learn to live by the rules of the kingdom, hence kingdom living requires a kingdom ethic.
A kingdom ethic may be glimpsed in the Sermon on the Mount. We won't have time to examine all there is to a kingdom ethic or in the Sermon on the Mount. What I would like to do is to look at some aspects of ethics I judge as particularly relevant to life in seminary.
The ethics of the kingdom are not discontinuous with the ethics of the Ten Commandments. Jesus does not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it. The ethics of the kingdom are radical though. Even though they are not discontinuous with the Ten Commandments, they are discontinuous with the ethics of the society around us.
I appreciate the way John Stott deals with the teaching of the Sermon under the title Christian Counter Culture. Stott explains his title thusly: "Jesus emphasized that his true followers, the citizens of God's kingdom, were to be entirely different from others...There is no single paragraph of the Sermon on the Mount in which this contrast between Christian and non-Christian standards is not drawn. It is the underlying and uniting theme of the Sermon; everything else is a variation of it." 18, 19
Your first reaction may be seminary is an easy place to different from the world. I beg to differ with you. Some of you know how the values of the world conflict with values of the kingdom. Some of you know those you envy because of grades. Some of you experience resentment because you don't do as well as others. Others of you cannot be satisfied to learn what God's word says in order to minister it more effectively. You must get better grades than your classmates. If a professor does not give you an 'A' you are devastated no matter how much you learned. That is the ethic of the world.
In Matthew 5:3-12 Jesus portrays genuine Christian or kingdom character. Let's look at two of those characteristics Jesus specifically relates to the kingdom, namely, the poor and spirit and the ones persecuted (see 5:3 and 10).
Some of you may think of seminary as a good place to cultivate poverty of spirit because lack of money often is the lot of seminarians. But when Jesus talks about the poor in spirit he describes those who acknowledge their spiritual poverty, the bankruptcy of their spiritual power. As you master the Word and develop skills in handling the Bible you will be tempted to begin to use what you know to justify your actions. You may find yourself thinking you do well, you keep the law, you please God. You may be correct in your assessment. The danger is you become a legalistic, self-righteous individual. You don't see yourself as an undeserving sinner but a reasonably righteous individual. When that happens hear the words of Jesus. Self-righteous students don't belong to the kingdom. Jesus says: ""Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
In 5:10 Jesus reminds us "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." You will face opposition. Be sure that opposition comes because you have been righteous, not arrogant. In the second place the kingdom requires a commitment to kingdom enterprises such as church, family and state.
The church provides the primary arena for functioning in the kingdom. I believe if you neglect the church, you deny your commitment to kingdom living. We may argue that the kingdom and the church are not exactly the same thing. That doesn't mean you can ignore the church or put her in second place.
One of my early surprises 20 years ago when I began full-time seminary teaching was that some students found reasons to miss worship services at church. I was naïve and genuinely shocked by my discovery. Some of you new students are wondering how that can be. It can, but it should not. If we are to live in the kingdom we need to honor the institutional church. In order to honor the church you need to be an active participant in the church including worship, learning, fellowship and service.
The writer of Hebrews summarizes my point plainly : "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," Hebrews 12:28 Don't think the temptation will not come to cram for
exams or finish a paper instead of engaging in worship in the church. It will be there, but if you seek to be a faithful member of the kingdom, you will opt for kingdom behavior.
The influence of the kingdom must be manifested in your homes as well. If you are going to practice Christian living now in anticipation of ministry later, you must learn to deal with your family in a Christian manner. I speak to out of my own failure, not success.
Your family is one place where the kingdom of God should be manifested. Perhaps there will be no place where you will find it as difficult to live according to kingdom rules as in the intimacy of your home.
For those of you who did not have the privilege of growing up in a Christian home, I suspect you will struggle most of all. Your default way of dealing with family life will be secular rather than Christian. It is here in particular you will need to learn to live differently.
You will also live in the midst of government and economy. Again this may provide a way for you to learn to live as kingdom citizens. Seminary poverty may be an opportunity for you to embrace living simply and frugally rather than resenting that you don't have all you left behind.
In the third place the kingdom requires that we learn how to communicate kingdom values and behavior to those who will receive our ministry. Seminary is not only a place where you and your family will learn to live as a citizen of the kingdom; it is also a place where you will learn to teach others to live thusly.
This is where you can see the parallel between seminary and the kingdom. The kingdom is not here in all its fullness but you live in light of its fullness. Likewise you are not fully engaged in ministry. Nevertheless, you need to function as one who ministers. You need to teach others how to live as kingdom citizens. You need to help others to worship and learn in the church. You need to encourage all you meet to live contrary to the values of the world in which we find ourselves.
What do I mean? First, try to relate to one another as those called to serve one another. Do this in your classroom activities. Do it in your conversations with one another.
I am frequently surprised when I speak with students and find they have never in their entire Christian life had another Christian correct or rebuke them. This situation prevails where we believe all are sinful and the profitability of the Word is seen in the way it rebukes, corrects and instructs in righteousness. I am not suggesting you spend your seminary career seeking to criticize your brothers and sisters in Christ. I am suggesting that you use the Word of God in the manner in which God designed it.
Learn to enable others to be kingdom citizens as you live as such and instruct and encourage others to do the same. Those involved in the church will find many opportunities for such kingdom ministry.
In Seminary we need to learn to live always and only for the king. Every aspect of the kingdom needs to be seen from the perspective of the Lord Jesus whose kingdom it is. In thinking about the kingdom we need always to remember Jesus is the king.
We get into his kingdom on the basis of faith in his redeeming work on the cross. That means we need to make Jesus the center of our seminary life.
Living for the king entails not only all we suggested under point two, but it also entails a special relationship with King Jesus The relationship you cultivate with the king will be both the most important and the most difficult aspect of your seminary career. You need to see Jesus as your sovereign, while much of evangelical Christianity sees him as a heavenly messenger boy. I suggest you read the book of Revelation and see how John portrays Jesus as the sovereign victorious king. You will need to see Jesus as both a friend and brother. He is willing to be that to you and you should also be willing. In cultivating a relationship with Jesus remind yourself Jesus receives his crown because he suffers the humiliating death of the cross for you.
Our relationship with the king will govern our understanding of the kingdom, our commitment to its values and the likelihood of living a kingdom ethic. You cannot live in Jesus' kingdom without Jesus. I know you will try again and again. You will not succeed. Jesus brings you into his kingdom and preserves you in it. In so doing, he demonstrates that he is the center of the kingdom. Be sure you recognize and affirm his centrality.
Your entire seminary career should focus on the ultimate act of the King in bringing in the fullness of his kingdom, namely, the second coming of the Lord Jesus. Seminary is an odd place. One of the first things you think about when you arrive is how long you will be here and how difficult it will be to leave. Seminary is one of those places where much of what we do we focuses on not being here.
Seminary is a distracting place. But I suggest you view seminary through the lens the scriptures give to us, namely, longing for the second coming of the Lord Jesus. When you long to be done with Greek verbs and Hebrew vocabulary. When you tire of theological formulations and dates in history, remember the kingdom. When you can you can no longer stand preparation and want to preach, teach, witness, or counsel, maintain the kingdom focus. Never let any of these desires supplant your longing for the return of the king. Make it a part of your daily activity to contemplate the glory of the return of your savior and all it entails. The kingdom has come and it is coming. Don't let that vision slip from your eyes and heart.
When you think about the return of the Savior then you will be able to engage in seminary life in a way that will make you fit to serve the king. Begin today to repeat the prayer of the apostle John in Revelation 22:20: "Amen, Come Lord Jesus!"
Allen Curry is the Hugh
and Sallie Reaves Professor of Christian Education at Reformed Theological
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