The Upside Down Kingdom


The key prayer of the Christian Church, taught by the Lord Jesus says:

Our Father, who art in Heaven
Hallowed be Your Name
Your Kingdom come,
Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.

But what does it mean for God’s Kingdom to come on earth?

There is a very real sense that we often forget about the Kingdom and concentrate on the visible church as an institution. The ‘church’ is the thing that is respects more tangible and visible. The local church, which tends to dominate our horizons, is in fact a representation of a much richer and bigger concept: the rule of God in our lives and our witness to the world. The church is important as the body of believers, but it is the concept of Kingdom living that is of greater importance. We need to keep that wider perspective before us if the local manifestation is to be true to its purpose.

So, as we start this series on the Kingdom, it is worth asking some questions. For example, how important is the Kingdom? What place does it occupy in the purpose of God? Has it been inaugurated? And, especially,

What is the nature of the Kingdom of God?

Two Scripture passages provide a background for our thinking: 2 Chronicles 1:1-10, and Luke 9:51-62

In the first of these there is reference to the kingdom established by Solomon

In Luke, we have the story of disciples being sent to proclaim the message of the Kingdom.

1. Jesus taught the Kingdom of God

Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God: it was central to his whole ministry here on earth. We are told he did so through the whole of Galilee:

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom. (Mt.4:23) Jesus went into Galilee, … proclaiming … "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" (Mk 1: 15.)

With the Kingdom of God near at hand, it was required that people would repent and believe the Good News. That message still applies today – the message of repentance and faith. It is still the same call today – repentance, which means a turning away from those things that are wrong; and faith in Jesus, a transforming faith that turns us around and gives us a new direction, a new life, and a new hope.

The announcement Jesus was making is this: ‘God’s in charge now – and this is what it looks like!’

Some will say ‘But I thought God was supposed to be in charge all the time?’ Ah. Now we’re talking. Yes, of course, in one way we believe that God is in charge. But you and I know there are all sorts of ways in which God seems not in charge – which is the world is in such a mess! Why God’s people are in such trouble? Why were ruthless, coarse, blaspheming unbelievers are running the show!

And why – in the middle of it all – is my child sick? Why is my mother crippled? Why did the soldiers kill my son, my cousin, my husband? Surely, if God was really in charge, all of this should be put right.

Jesus was going about sorting stuff out. But he was talking, the whole time, about being in charge on a larger scale as well.

When I say that Jesus was talking about God being king, I mean he was announcing it. Think how football clubs and their supporters are very excited when a new star player arrives. The announcement is made: we have a new star! At last, we’re going to score some goals! It’ll make all the difference.

But they get even more excited when, perhaps after months or years of indifferent management, a new manager is appointed, especially if he comes with a reputation for turning things around and getting a club back on a winning streak. We’ve got a new boss! Everything’s going to change now!

This is an announcement about something that’s happened because of which everything will be different. It isn’t a piece of advice about how to live or a clue about how to give up watching football altogether now that the team have been playing so badly. It’s a proclamation. Once the new manager has been announced, the players had better do what he says. Then, and only then, things will work out properly.

The same thing is true under a great empire. When Caesar’s herald comes into town and declares ‘We have a new emperor,’ it isn’t an invitation to debate the principle of imperial rule. It isn’t the offer of a new feeling inside. It’s a new fact, and you’d better readjust your life around it.

Of course, for a football club what then often happens is that within weeks, or even days, disappointment begins to set in. The team doesn’t magically start winning all the trophies. And so another cycle begins.

2. Jesus sent his disciples to proclaim the kingdom

The disciples, when they were with Jesus, were sent to proclaim the Kingdom of God.

It happened in their first limited commission:

When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God (Luke 9: 1,2.).

In Luke 9: 59-60, there is an individual commission to proclaim the Kingdom of God:

He said to another man, "Follow me." In the next chapter again the sending out of the Seventy takes place so that they might tell them that the Kingdom of God is at hand. "When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, `The kingdom of God is near you.’ ”

If Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God, then perhaps it would be more fitting to call it the Right-Side-Up Kingdom instead of the Upside-Down Kingdom. If we agree that the kingdom portrays God’s blueprint for the way people ought to live, then certainly we ought to tag it the Right-Side- Up Kingdom. Although the kingdom of God is not literally upside down, the inverted image is helpful because it reminds us of three things:

a. Social life has a vertical dimension. We often hear remarks about a vertical relationship with God and a horizon with humans. This carries with it false view that the social order is level with lines which connect humans together form a flat plane.

Life is not a flat plane but has a rugged landscape. Mountains, valleys, and plains. Individuals and groups vary a great deal in the amount of power and control they exercise. The chairman of a committee wields much more power than the average committee member. Lawyers have more influence than shop assistants. Jews, as an ethnic group, have much greater influence in American political affairs than Hispanics. Some people are on much higher social mountains than others in terms of their influence, prestige, and power. The term "upside down" keeps the reality of this vertical ranking of persons in front of us.

b. We forget to ask why. The "upside-down" handle also encourages us to question the way things are. Children quickly learn to take their societies’ values for granted. Cereal is the "right" breakfast food. Socialisation—the learning of the ways of our culture—is very persuasive and thorough in shaping the assumptions by which we live. We take our way of life for granted. We tend to think that the way things are is the way they ought to be. We internalise the values and norms paraded on the screen as "just the way life is."

The values, beliefs, and norms of our society become so deeply ingrained within our thought processes that it’s difficult to conceive of acting in a different way. The way of Jesus often appears upside down or backwards in contrast to the prevailing value system which our minds have absorbed so thoroughly. If it does anything, the kingdom of God shatters most of the assumptions which govern our social life. As kingdom citizens we don’t assume that things are right just because "that’s the way they are."

c. The kingdom is full of surprises. Again and again in parables, sermons, and acts Jesus startles us. Things are not like they are supposed to be. The stories don’t end as we expected. The Good Guys turn out to be the Bad Guys. The ones we expected to receive a reward are losers. Things are reversed. Paradox, irony, and surprise permeate the life of Jesus. The least are the greatest. The immoral receive forgiveness and blessing. Adults become like children. The religious miss the heavenly banquet. The pious receive curses. Things are just not like we think they should be. We are baffled, perplexed, and most of all surprised. We are caught off guard. We step back in amazement. We aren’t sure if we should laugh or cry. The kingdom surprises us again and again by turning our world upside down.

3. Even after His death He spoke of the kingdom.

In the significant days after His death and resurrection, when He commissioned His disciples to continue the work He had begun, Jesus talked to them primarily about the Kingdom.

After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. (Acts 1: 3.)

All their concern focused on Kingdom of God.

Philip as he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, (Acts 8:12)

The disciples asked him whether this was the time He would restore the kingdom, only to be told to wait and work for that event.

Danger 1: Ignore the Kingdom

Some people often dilute the kingdom message and make it irrelevant for today: Jesus lived in a small town in a rural area which never heard of industrialization, technocracy, Higgs boson, neutron bombs, urbanisation, and multinational corporations. The kingdom Jesus announced was only fitting for his kind of society where everyone in the small village was known on a first-name basis.

But whether Galilean peasant society or post-industrial society, the same fundamental issues persist the distribution and use of power, nationalism, the emergence of social hierarchies, racism, economic oppression in intergroup relations, violence, and arrogant individualism. In short, evil and sin infuse the values and social structures of both yesterday and today.

Danger 2: Spiritualise the Kingdom

In our minds we sort words into holy and profane boxes. In religious circles the term "spiritual" stands at the top of the sacred ladder and is frequently contrasted with "social" which must be near the bottom. Spiritual realities, the logic goes, come from God and are holy.

Social things, on the other hand, originate from men. Social realities are suspect and far from the heart of God. It is assumed that spiritual things are much better than social things. Have you ever heard persons say that they hope a certain church function doesn’t become just a social event — implying that it would no longer have spiritual meaning. This unfortunate dichotomy between spiritual and social often detours us around kingdom ethics.

On the one hand spiritual things refer to great metaphysical truths. They include our belief of salvation, peace, and assurance. They may also refer to the mysterious working of God’s Spirit in our lives. On the other hand, social things point us to earthly and mundane concerns: housing, fellowship, salary, recreation. In particular, they point to our humanity—our social needs for approval, love, creativity, and satisfying relationships. This false segregation of the spiritual and that which is social results in a warped reading of the Scripture which allows us to seek the spiritual truth at the expense of the social. We marvel at the atonement of Jesus and forget that He also demonstrated a new way of living.

Any gospel which is not social is not gospel. God so loved the world that. … He didn’t just sit in His great theological rocking chair stroking His white beard and glory in His love for the world. He did something about it. He became social in the form of His Son. He lived, interacted, and behaved in a real social environment, disclosing God’s social way. In the incarnation the spiritual "word" became a social "event." To say it another way, the social event was itself a word which communicated to men.

Word and deed are inseparably cemented into one in the incarnation. In these last days God has spoken to us not in Greek or English but with a Son—through a social event (Hebrews 1:2). The genius of the incarnation is that the spiritual and social worlds intersect in the Kingdom of God.

4. The Kingdom of God in the preaching of Paul.

Paul continued the teaching of Jesus, amplified it, and took it to a wider community. He took the good news of the Kingdom of God, not only to the Jews but also to the Gentiles.

Wherever he went, he would go to the synagogues and tell the Jews of Jesus: As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, (Acts.17:1-3), and in the synagogues he seeks to convince them concerning the kingdom of God. Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God.

(Acts 19:8.) When the Jews rejected him he took the same message to the Gentiles.

This was the thrust of his missionary journeys.

This was also at the centre of his instruction to the early church. We read about that in his travels and as he taught, he preached the Kingdom of God "Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again. (Acts.20:25.)

He warned them that there would be difficult days ahead before they entered the Kingdom. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. "We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God," they said. (Acts.14:21-22.) He would later write to them and encourage them: For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory. (1 Thes.2:12 ) and with regard to the Kingdom and its worth and value for us. All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. (2 Thes.1: 5.)

In Acts 1:3 Jesus spends some 40 days talking about the Kingdom; Paul talks about it from morning to night (Acts 28:23).

So, if the Kingdom features so prominently in the good news that Jesus came to proclaim, and which he commissioned his disciples after him to continue, then that is surely something that is worthy of our attention?