This is the introduction to the full lecture series presented by Pastor Barry Henning at the 2012 Reconciliation & Justice Conference. For the PDF of the full lecture series, please click here.
The Coming of the Kingdom of God in the Book of Acts
Just the title for this lecture series is a source of excitement and encouragement for me, and hopefully for all of us, as we seek to more faithfully understand and participate in God’s glorious work of redemption in this world. Too much of the time discussions and preaching around the book of Acts deal only with the book as a collection of independent stories (the day of Pentecost; Peter and John’s imprisonment; Saul’s conversion; the Macedonian vision) or as a jumping off point for certain theological issues (the question of speaking in tongues; the place of deacons; the nature of church government; even a study of Paul’s missionary methods). While every one of these issues has their place and are truly important to the church, the broader questions of the unfolding story in the book of Acts of the inauguration of the rule and reign of Jesus as the Christ, the risen King, bringing his kingdom to earth through the outpouring of the Spirit’s power on the church, as well the questions of the nature of that kingdom and how it all is meant to equip us to also continue “what Jesus began to do and to teach” (Acts 1:1) in announcing the coming of the kingdom in our world today, are largely overlooked. This is an opportunity for all of us to clarify our call as the church to be the faithful people God who learn more deeply to love this world by praying for and living out that most essential, defining vision Jesus taught us to pray for: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
As we begin these studies I want to describe the scope and limit of this discussion. Here is a one (long) sentence definition of the kingdom of God:
The rule and reign of Jesus the Messiah, King of the nations, to bring the blessing of God’s promised redemption and restoration to this sinful, oppressive and broken world through Abraham’s offspring, the church, who are to be the reconciled people of God from among all the nations, anointed by the Holy Spirit to preach forgiveness of sins through the death and resurrection of Christ and labor for the reconciliation and restoration of all things in Christ by living out justice, mercy and humility, until the end when the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of Christ and the new heavens and the new earth become the home of righteousness forever.
From this definition, we want to concentrate especially on two issues: reconciliation and justice/mercy.
There are many statements and questions throughout the book of Acts that reveal the Apostles and leaders in the Jewish-Jerusalem church were in a process of understanding the reconciliation-justice nature of the kingdom of God. The fact that their expectations were centered around these issues- “what does the kingship of Jesus Christ and the coming of his kingdom mean specifically for the Jewish people in relationship to the world?” – is clear from the opening comments in Acts 1:1-8:
Acts 1:1 In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, 2 until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 To them he presented himself alive after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4 And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” 6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
This question, “Are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” demonstrates that while the disciples had a very clear sense that his rule and reign as Messiah would extend over all the nations of the earth -Dan 7:13-14, Mt 26:62-64- (and I would argue from the ministry of Jesus, undeniably that his kingdom rule was to be one of justice for the poor -Lk 4:18ff; Mt 5:3, etc), they clearly did not fully understand all the implications of the reconciliation-justice nature of that kingdom rule and the way in which the gentiles would be enfolded as equal members of the kingdom. In their minds, all could come, but the practical, earthly expression of ruling and reigning in this kingdom was to be done by the Jewish believers.
It would take nearly 20 years of practical and theological training, culminating in the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, before they fully grasped the new, full nature of the kingdom of God and the place of the Jewish hope and expectations for the fulfillment of the Covenant with Abraham within the rule and reign of Christ; and it would take the book of Revelation to help them understand the full inauguration of Christ’s kingship through the destruction of Jerusalem (Rev 10-11) and ultimately Rome (Rev 12ff, Dan 7 and 9), and the vindication of his kingdom.
My contention for much of the evangelical church today is that we need to re-learn both the reconciliation nature of the kingdom and the justice/mercy nature of that kingdom. For too long we have a preached a gospel that emphasizes a purely individualistic, “soul” salvation, to the detriment of recognizing that we are called to collectively be the people of God, the body of Christ, a reconciled and reconciling family that holistically announces the kingdom through the power of the Spirit by doing justice and preaching grace.