Bearing Witness to an Invisible Kingdom
The gospel of Luke ends with a supremely jarring statement:
“Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God” (24:50–53).
What is jarring about this passage is, as Luke reports the departure of Jesus from this world, the response of His disciples was to return to Jerusalem with “great joy.” What about Jesus’ departure would instill in His disciples an emotion of sheer elation? This question is made all the more puzzling when we consider the emotions the disciples displayed when Jesus earlier had told them that His departure would come soon. At that time, the idea that their Lord would leave their presence provoked in them a spirit of profound remorse. It would seem that nothing could be more depressing than to anticipate separation from the presence of Jesus. Yet, in a very short period of time, that depression changed to unspeakable joy.
We have to ask what is it that provoked such a radical change of emotion within the hearts of Jesus’ disciples. The answer to that question is plain in the New Testament. Between the time of Jesus’ announcement to them that He would soon be going away and the time of His actual departure, the disciples came to realize two things. First, they realized why it was that Jesus was leaving. Secondly, they understood the place to which He was going. Jesus was leaving not in order that they might be left alone and comfortless, but that He might ascend into heaven. The New Testament idea of ascension means something far more weighty than merely going up into the sky or even to the abode of the heavenlies. In His ascension, Jesus was going to a specific place for a specific reason. He was ascending into heaven for the purpose of His investiture and coronation as the King of kings and Lord of lords. The New Testament title used to describe Jesus in His kingly role is the “King of kings” and likewise the title “Lord of lords.” This particular literary structure means more than Jesus’ establishment in a position of authority by which He will rule over lesser kings. Rather, it is a structure that indicates the supremacy of Jesus in His monarchical majesty. He is King in the highest possible sense of kingship.
In biblical terms, it is unthinkable to have a king without a kingdom. Since Jesus ascends to His coronation as king, with that coronation comes the designation by the Father of a realm over which He rules. That realm is all creation.
There are two gross errors in modern theology regarding the biblical concept of the kingdom of God. The first is that the kingdom has already been consummated and that nothing is left for the reign of Christ to be made manifest. Such a view can be described as over-realized eschatology (last things). With the realization of the fullness of the kingdom, there would be no more to look forward to in terms of the triumph of Christ. The other error is that which a vast number of Christians believe, that the kingdom of God is something totally futuristic — that is, in no sense does the kingdom of God exist already. This view takes such a strong attitude toward the future dimension of the kingdom of God that even such New Testament passages as the Beatitudes of Matthew 5–7, have no application to the church today because they belong to the future age of the kingdom, which has not yet begun.
Both of the above views do violence to the clear teaching of the New Testament that the kingdom of God has indeed begun. The King is already in place. He has already received all authority on heaven and on earth. That means that at this very moment the supreme authority over the kingdoms of this world and over the entire cosmos is in the hands of King Jesus. There is no inch of real estate, no symbol of power in this world that is not under His ownership and His rule at this very moment. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, in chapter 2, in the so-called kenotic hymn, it is said that Jesus is given the name that is above all names. The name that He is given that rises above all other titles that anyone can receive, is a name that is reserved for God. It is God’s title Adonai, which means the “One who is absolutely sovereign.” Again, this title is one of supreme governorship for the One who is the King of all of the earth.
The New Testament translation of the Old Testament title adonai is the name lord. When Paul says that at the name of Jesus every knee must bow and every tongue confess, the reason for the bowing in obeisance and for confessing is that they are to declare with their lips that Jesus is Lord — that is, He is the sovereign ruler. That was the first confession of faith of the early church.
Then Rome, in her misguided, pagan tyranny tried to enforce a loyalty oath to the emperor cult of religion, in which all people were required to recite the phrase kaisar kurios — “Caesar is lord.” The Christians responded by showing every possible form of civil obedience, by paying their taxes, by honoring the king, by being model citizens; but they could not in good conscience obey the mandate of Caesar to proclaim him lord. Their response to the loyalty oath, kaisar kurios, was as profound in its ramifications as it was simple in its expression, Jesus ho kurios, Jesus is Lord. The lordship of Jesus is not simply a hope of Christians that someday might be realized; it is a truth that has already taken place. It is the task of the church to bear witness to that invisible kingdom, or as Calvin put it, it is the task of the church to make the invisible kingdom of Christ visible. Though invisible, it is nevertheless real.
This post was originally published in Tabletalk magazine.