From: Heaven on Earth
The Early Church and the Kingdom
Our journey continues as we step out of the four gospels and into the Book of Acts. In this exciting book, which spans the period between A.D. 30 and A. D. 64, Luke describes the early believers, apostles and lay people alike, spreading the kingdom message to the ends of the Roman Empire. He mentions that after Jesus was crucified and resurrected but before he ascended to Heaven, he spent 40 days with his apostles, “speaking of the things pertaining to the Kingdom of God,” (Acts 1:3). Stop and think about that for a moment. Jesus could have spoken about anything, but he chose to speak about one thing only – the kingdom. Thus, he ended his Earthly ministry the same way he began it – declaring the gospel of the kingdom!
Have you ever wondered what Jesus actually said about the Kingdom of God during those six weeks? To find out, you can read about his post-resurrection appearances. Check out the Great Commission, for instance, and you will find Jesus saying, “All authority has been given to me in Heaven and on Earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age,” (Matthew 28:18-20). This is one example of Jesus “speaking of the things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” How so?
First, Jesus claims to possess authority over the entire creation. As Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920), theologian and prime minister of the Netherlands, famously said, “There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus does not cry out: ‘This is mine!’” Second, his reach extends beyond Heaven to Earth. This means Jesus has authority over Caesar and client kings, so he is the king over all other kings. Those claiming to be kings are obligated to bow before him. Third, authority is given to him. He rules on God’s behalf.
Fourth, he calls upon his followers to make disciples of all the nations. The significance of this command must not be understated. For the early Christians, obedience to the Great Commission involved nothing less than going to nations that Rome had conquered and claimed as its own and calling on the people to switch their allegiance from Caesar to Christ. Such an effort was considered treasonous. The kingdoms of Christ and Caesar were on a collision course. The new disciples were required to pledge their loyalty to a foreign king in a public baptism in the name of a God who was foreign to Rome. This could mean the death penalty, especially if the new converts were Roman citizens or served in a governmental capacity.
So this is what it means for Jesus to speak of “the things pertaining to the Kingdom of God,” (Acts 1:3). When you read other post-resurrection accounts, ask yourself what else Jesus had to say about the kingdom.
As Jesus stood on the mount before his ascension to Heaven, he promised his followers that he would one day return to Earth. But until then they should be his witnesses, (Acts 1:8). The Book of Acts is the account of their heroic efforts to complete that commission. We should not be surprised, therefore, to find them preaching about the kingdom. From start to finish, the Book of Acts chronicles their evangelistic exploits. For instance, we find Peter on the Day of Pentecost declaring that God raised up and exalted Jesus “to sit on his throne,” a kingly position of authority, (2:30-32). We later follow Philip, the lay evangelist, as he travels to Samaria and preaches “the things concerning the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ,” (8:12).
At Thessalonica, the apostle Paul and his team are charged with sedition for teaching and acting “contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king – Jesus,” (17:7). Two chapters later Paul moves into Asia Minor and speaks boldly in the synagogues “concerning the things of the Kingdom of God,” (Acts 19:8). In his farewell address to the Ephesian elders, he reminds them that he had spent three full years in their city testifying “to the gospel of the grace of God,” which he describes as “preaching the Kingdom of God,” (Acts 20:24-25).
From there Paul goes to Jerusalem, where he is arrested for preaching the gospel. He is eventually taken to Rome, where he is placed under house arrest, awaiting trial. Although fettered to a soldier, he uses his visitation privileges as opportunities to proclaim the gospel. “Many came to him at his lodging, to whom he explained and solemnly testified of the Kingdom of God,” (Acts 28:23). A few verses later, the Book of Acts closes with these words of summary: “Then Paul dwelt two whole years in his own rented house, and received all who came to him, preaching the Kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ will all confidence, no one forbidding him,” (Acts 28:30-31). Thus, the Book of Acts closes in the same way it opens. The Kingdom of God serves as bookends.
In Paul’s magnum opus on the nature of salvation, he asks the believers in Rome several questions:
How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things! (Romans 10:14-15).
Look at the Record
Without a doubt, the good news of the kingdom is the central theme of all first-century evangelistic preaching. The list of preachers includes John the Baptist, Jesus, the twelve apostles, an unnamed disciple, seventy disciples, Peter, Philip, and Paul.
When we consider the amount of time the founding church leaders spent teaching and preaching about the kingdom, shouldn’t we expect the same from our evangelists and pastors? Where is the gospel of the kingdom being preached today? I am not referring to the future reign of Christ, as important as that is, but the Kingdom of God as a present reality. If Jesus and the apostles walked the Earth today, would they even recognize the gospel message heralded from most pulpits?
Product counterfeiting is illegal. Dishonest manufacturers and distributors cheat people out of tens of billions of dollars a year. Every day unsuspecting customers buy electronics, athletic clothes, watches, and a myriad of other items that carry the brand or logo of a reputable company, only to discover later the disappointing merchandise was a knockoff. A counterfeit Rolex might look like the real McCoy at first glance, but it doesn’t work like a Rolex. I know!
A group of my students gave me one when I left my job as a professor to become a pastor. They said they wanted to demonstrate how much they loved and appreciated me. When I opened the box to see a beautiful gold Rolex, I was overwhelmed. As I began to thank them profusely, they nodded, smiled sheepishly, and said they hoped I would remember them whenever I checked the time of day. The fake Rolex stopped working in less than 24 hours! P. T. Barnum would have said I was the victim of humbug.
But counterfeiting the gospel is not a laughing matter. It is so serious, in fact, that the apostle Paul excoriates the Galatians for “turning away… to a different gospel.” He then pronounces judgment on those perverting the gospel: “If we, or an angel from Heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed,” (Galatians 1:6-8). We might expect a cult to endorse a false gospel, but we should not expect our churches and trusted parachurch organizations to distort the gospel.
Christians rarely set out to twist the gospel. But they often preach a gospel that is shaped more by tradition and culture than by scriptures.
I must add a caveat. This book is not intended to be a diatribe against any Christian group or minister. I have nothing but the highest regard for all who answer God’s call to ministry and sacrificially devote their time and energy to the cause of Christ. Rather, I am demonstrating that the gospel is about the kingdom as defined by Jesus. Because it is good news in the fullest sense of the term, it has relevance for us here and now on Earth. Salvation, as we shall see in the next few chapters, is less about Heaven and more about wholeness of life. From start to finish the good news is about how God’s people of every generation can enjoy kingdom benefits and blessing while they are still alive, not only after they die and go to Heaven.
If Jesus came to bring abundant life, (John 10:10), why don’t we experience it? I hope you will know the answer by the end of the book. More importantly, you will know how to apply the principles of the kingdom to your daily life and tap into a wealth of divine resources.