5 Radical Lessons Christ Reveals About the Kingdom of God

Matthias Grünewald, Crucifixion of Christ (1510)
Matthias Grünewald, Crucifixion of Christ (1510)

Yesterday was the Feast of Christ the King, and today brings news that England’s Prince Harry is planning to wed the actress Meghan Markle (prompting me to joke on Facebook, “Apparently, Prince Harry is engaged to an American Catholic. I can’t tell if this marriage is a British plot to retake America, or a Popish plot to retake Britain”). In other words, it’s a great day to talk about the idea of the “Kingdom of God,” and why it matters for Christianity.

First, the idea of the “Kingdom of God” is absolutely central to the Christian Gospel. The first words out of the mouth of Jesus in St. Mark’s Gospel are “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). St. Matthew says that Jesus “went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people” (Mt. 4:23). And we pray for the coming of this Kingdom every time that we pray the Lord’s Prayer.

Second, Christ is King in the Kingdom of God. The Angel Gabriel prophesied at the Annunciation (Luke 1:32-33) that “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.” St. Paul testifies (1 Timothy 6:13-16):

In the presence of God who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ; and this will be made manifest at the proper time by the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.

Likewise, St. John sees an image of Christ in Glory, and “on his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, King of kings and Lord of lords” (Revelation 19:16). Pope Pius XI, in his 1925 encyclical Quas Primas (perhaps the best explanation on the Kingship of Christ), gives a brief Biblical exposition:

Moreover, Christ himself speaks of his own kingly authority: in his last discourse, speaking of the rewards and punishments that will be the eternal lot of the just and the damned; in his reply to the Roman magistrate, who asked him publicly whether he were a king or not; after his resurrection, when giving to his Apostles the mission of teaching and baptizing all nations, he took the opportunity to call himself king, [Matthew 25:31-40] confirming the title publicly,[John 18:37] and solemnly proclaimed that all power was given him in heaven and on earth.[Matthew 28:18] These words can only be taken to indicate the greatness of his power, the infinite extent of his kingdom. What wonder, then, that he whom St. John calls the “prince of the kings of the earth”[Revelation 1:5] appears in the Apostle’s vision of the future as he who “hath on his garment and on his thigh written ‘King of kings and Lord of lords!’.”[Revelation 19:16] It is Christ whom the Father “hath appointed heir of all things”;[Hebrews 1:2] “for he must reign until at the end of the world he hath put all his enemies under the feet of God and the Father.”[1 Corinthians 15:25]

And of course, we proclaim Christ’s Kingship every time we declare “Jesus is Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:3). As Americans, we sometimes miss this, because we don’t have much exposure to kings and lords, but that’s what we’re saying, whether we realize it or not.

Third, Christ has a Kingdom, not a Democracy. This is closely related to the last point. In a democracy, we regularly think of power and authority as flowing from the bottom-up, what Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address referred to as “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” There are two closely related ideas here: (1) we the people get to decide who our leaders will be, and if we don’t like them, we can replace them; and (2) our leaders get their authority from us. This second idea is clearly articulated by the Declaration of Independence:

Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The end point of this is relativism. In the political sphere, that looks like people saying “not my president” when they don’t like the outcome of democratic elections (and that’s a mantra both now, and dating back to at least the Clinton Administration). In the religious sphere, it’s relativism, with its idea that we can choose our own god. But it really goes beyond even that, to the idea that we get to create our own reality. The Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood v. Casey actually endorsed this radical view in claiming that “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

In other words, the end point of this democratization is the idea that all of reality is something we get to create and determine for ourselves. But Christ is King of Kings and Lord of Lords whether or not we recognize His Kingship and Lordship, and His authority comes from His Father, and not from us. Some parts of reality have to be acknowledged and accepted, not invented. We don’t get to choose our God, we don’t get to choose our parents, and we don’t even really get to choose our Church leaders. These authorities are given to us for our good and our protection. They’re accountable to God for how they lead us, but they’re the ones in charge. As it says in Hebrews 13:7, 17-18:

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith. […] Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account. Let them do this joyfully, and not sadly, for that would be of no advantage to you. Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things.

Protestantism and the Enlightenment were born at about the same time, and closely influenced one another, so it’s not particularly shocking that many Americans (living in a democratic, historically-Protestant country) naturally think of religion in democratic terms. We choose the religious practice that fits us, a place where we feel comfortable worshiping, etc. We, the sheep, decide who we want as our shepherds. If we don’t like them, a board of elders can replace them and get us shepherds we prefer. When Joseph Smith invented Mormonism, that Protestant and American influence showed through. That’s why the current head of the Mormon religion is “President Thomas S. Monson.” What could be more American that replacing popes and kings with presidents? But democratic governance isn’t the model of Church governance given us by Jesus Christ. From the Old Testament forward, leadership is top-down. It’s something we in the pews respect and accept, not something that we invent ourselves.

Fourth, the Kingdom of God is the foundation (and limit) of all civil authority. Christ tells us both that we must “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21) and that “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matt. 6:21). On the surface, this looks like a contradiction – if we serve both Caesar and God, don’t we have two masters?

But the New Testament repeatedly shows how to harmonize these two teachings. St. Peter puts it this way (1 Peter 2:13-17):

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution,[b] whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. 16 Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God. Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

St. Paul say something remarkably similar (Romans 13:1-7):

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

And Christ puts it simply in His testimony before Pilate (John 19:10-11):

Pilate therefore said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore he who delivered me to you has the greater sin.”

In other words, we are called by God to serve legitimate civil authority, and so in serving Caesar (so long as he isn’t defying God), we are serving God. Being a good citizen is a critical part of being a good Christian. But this, of course, also sets limits on the scope of civil authority. God never asks us to disobey Him (that idea is absurd and incoherent), so we can’t say that our patriotic duty trumps our religious service.

If our patriotism and civic-mindedness is rooted in our faith, we’ll immediately know who to side with when Caesar starts to claim for himself what properly belongs only to God. The Apostles bore witness to this with their lives. The same three men who testified to the legitimate authority of the state – Jesus, St. Peter, and St. Paul – all died at the hands of the Roman state due to their refusal to subordinate the things of God to the things of Caesar.

On the other hand, the idea of power flowing from the bottom-up is a dangerous idea even within the framework of civil society. If civil society and law are rooted in the will of the people – that is, in majority appeal – then there’s little check against majoritarian violence or mob rule. The clash between these two conceptions of law is nowhere clearer than the Civil RIghts Movement. As Simon Sinek put it,

Dr. King believed that there are two types of laws in this world: those that are made by a higher authority and those that are made by men. And not until all the laws that are made by men are consistent with the laws made by the higher authority will we live in a just world. It just so happened that the Civil Rights Movement was the perfect thing to help him bring his cause to life.

Jim Crow and lynch mobs were majoritarian rule – the white majority having their way with black minorities. King appealed, not to majority rule or popular appeal, but to a higher authority, God’s Law. As he put it in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.

So Jesus’ preaching about the Kingdom of God is part of a revelation of something like a political theology. It’s not that Jesus or the Church are endorsing a particular model of civil governance (although it excludes certain models: it’s hard to see how one can accept Romans 13 and claim that “taxation is theft” or that anarchy is good). Instead, for any valid mode of civil governance, the Christian message is one of showing how civic participation fits within the broader question of how one is to live as a Christian in society.

Finally, the Kingship of Christ reveals what Kingship ought to look like. At the Last Supper, Jesus takes an opportunity to teach His Apostles about true greatness (Luke 22:25-27):

The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves.

The next day, He exemplifies this self-giving kingship in a radical way. Think about the most public proclamation of Jesus’ Kingship given at any point during His ministry. It’s on the very last day of His earthly (pre-Resurrection) life, as He’s hanging from the Cross (John 19:17-20):

So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called the place of a skull, which is called in Hebrew Gol′gotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them. Pilate also wrote a title and put it on the cross; it read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek.

It’s no coincidence that Christ, who spent three years seeming to avoid the title of King of the Jews should have it hanging over Him on the Cross. Because in the end, He is King, but not in the way that the people who had been following Him had expected. The Cross finally reveals what Jesus’ Kingship looks like, and it reveals to all of us entrusted with authority and responsibility and power how we should exercise those gifts.

16 Comments

  1. If Christ is indeed King, then what exactly is His Kingdom comprised of? And what rank, or what part, do we all play in it? Where are all the royal family members such as the queen, the princesses and princes, and the serfs, that are usually part of what we know and define as a ‘kingdom’? There is nothing describing the particular attributes of ‘the Kingdom’ in this post.

    1. This is to say, is the Kingdom of God located everywhere that the gates of Hell are not…both ‘on Earth as it is in Heaven’? Does the Earthly portion of God’s Kingdom equal Augustine’s famous work ‘The City of God’, and St. Theresa’s also famous work ‘the Interior Castle’? Is it mostly invisible to the world even as it was to Saul before he became Paul, who formerly could not recognize that He was persecuting the King Himself via His members of the Kingdom suffering here below? Is it made visible by the virtues actions of the Saints, wherein they are indeed salt and leaven, raising up and enlightening the Kingdom of this world?

      I figure it’s all of these things, both visible and invisible, individual and corporate, eternal in nature and also working here temporally.

  2. A good post. I wonder if there’s a certain tension in American thought between the lionizing of democracy and the understanding of the Kingship of Christ. Of course, Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world, and there is nothing preventing a good Catholic from also believing that democracy is the best form of government. But I do think that the excessive praise given to democratic systems in America can do harm to our understanding of Christ’s Kingdom. I’m of the opinion that the use of the word “Kingdom” was meant to convey important truths to the Christians, truths which are lost or obscured when you have almost no familiarity with monarchy. It is the same way that a child who had grown up without a father, or as a listless orphan, would not fully understand the implications of calling God “our Father”, because he does not understand properly the natural bond that the phrase is trying to use to show us allegorically what God’s love for us is like.

    1. Eoin,

      Exactly. I’m not arguing against America being a republican democracy (or democratic republic) but highlighting that if we approach Christianity (or reality more broadly) expecting it to work the way that democracy works, we’re starting off on the wrong foot.

      And yes, terms like “Kingdom,” “Lord,” “King,” and “Master” are used positively in Scripture to refer to God and negatively in America to refer to a sort of exaggerated King George III, or to refer to slave-masters, etc. All of this is to say that we stand in a particular need of the healing promise of Luke 22, the purification of the exercise of power.

    1. *What

      Does a Christian have a religious obligation to passively or actively oppose implemented legislation that violates the Christian understanding of natural law?

      1. Boz, I was just reading what the Catechism says regarding the 4th Commandment so maybe this will help answer your question:

        2242 The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel. Refusing obedience to civil authorities, when their demands are contrary to those of an upright conscience, finds its justification in the distinction between serving God and serving the political community. “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”48 “We must obey God rather than men”:49

        When citizens are under the oppression of a public authority which oversteps its competence, they should still not refuse to give or to do what is objectively demanded of them by the common good; but it is legitimate for them to defend their own rights and those of their fellow citizens against the abuse of this authority within the limits of the natural law and the Law of the Gospel.50

        2243 Armed resistance to oppression by political authority is not legitimate, unless all the following conditions are met: 1) there is certain, grave, and prolonged violation of fundamental rights; 2) all other means of redress have been exhausted; 3) such resistance will not provoke worse disorders; 4) there is well-founded hope of success; and 5) it is impossible reasonably to foresee any better solution.

        48 Mt 22:21.
        49 Acts 5:29.
        50 GS 74 § 5.

  3. Thanks, Steve.

    How do we reconcile 1 Peter 2:13-17, Romans 13:1-7, John 19:10-11 with Luke 4: 5-6:

    Then the Devil led Him up and showed Him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the Devil said to Him, “To You I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please

    1. Hi Boz,

      We rational creatures can distinguish what is morally correct from that which is not. John 8:44 and 47 says, ” …the devil,… there is no truth in him. 47Whoever belongs to God hears what God says….”

      John 8:44 has Jesus saying there is no truth in the devil. So when the devil speaks as in Luke 4:5-6, the devil lies. The devil holds no authority to give anyone else’s glory and authority to anyone, let alone to Jesus. Further, why would Jesus want the authority which He already has? [We can fairly well discern that the devil wants glory, authority, power given to no one but himself.] The devil, by virtue of his being a created spirit, was created a spirit by God; the devil is, therefore, ultimately and finally subject to the authority of God. For reasons known to God, the devil has been given freedom (as humans have also been given) to act in ways contrary to God’s will. Until such time as God wills these freedoms to end.

      1. Nice, Margo. Your comment is backed up by the Lord in the scriptures, and also by Joe’s quote above, in this exchange between Jesus and Pontius Pilate:

        “Thou shouldst NOT HAVE ANY POWER against me, unless it were given thee FROM ABOVE. Therefore, he that hath delivered me to thee, hath the greater sin.” (John 19:11)

        So, you are correct. Jesus knew Satan was lying to Him during ‘the temptations in the desert’.

  4. Christ’s Kingdom is sustained on Earth through the Holy Eucharist:

    From a writing of St. Peter Julian Eymard (1811-1868)

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    THE TRIUMPH OF CHRIST THROUGH THE EUCHARIST

    “Christus vincit, regnat, imperat; ab omni malo plebem suam defendat.
    Christ conquers, He reigns, He commands. May He defend His people from all evil.

    POPE SIXTUS V had these words engraved on the obelisk which stands in the center of Saint Peter’s Square at Rome. These magnificent words are in the present tense, and not in the past, to indicate that Christ’s triumph is always actual, and that it is brought about in the Eucharist and by the Eucharist.

    I. CHRISTUS vincit. Christ conquers. Our Lord has fought; He has won control of the field of battle, on which He has planted His flag and pitched His tent: the Sacred Host and the Eucharistic tabernacle. He conquered the Jew and his temple, and He has a tabernacle on Calvary where all the nations come to adore Him beneath the sacramental Species. He conquered paganism and has chosen Rome, the city of the Caesars, for His capital. His tabernacle is now in the temple of Jupiter, the god of thunder. He conquered the false wisdom of the sages; as the Divine Eucharist rose on the world and shed its rays over the whole earth, darkness withdrew like the shades of night at the coming of day. The idols have been knocked down and the sacrifices abolished. Jesus Eucharistic is a conqueror Who never halts but ever marches onward; He wants to subject the universe to His gentle sway.

    Every time He takes possession of a country, He pitches therein His Eucharistic royal tent. The erection of a tabernacle is His official occupation of a country. In our own day He still goes out to uncivilized nations; and wherever the Eucharist is brought, the people are converted to Christianity. That is the secret of the triumph of our Catholic missionaries and of the failure of the Protestant preachers. In the latter case, man is battling alone; in the former, Jesus is battling, and He is sure to triumph.

    II. CHRISTUS regnat. Christ reigns. Jesus does not rule over earthly territories but over souls, and He does so through the Eucharist. A king must rule through his laws and through the love of his subjects for him. The Eucharist is the law of the Christian: a law of charity and of love, which was promulgated in the Cenacle in the admirable discourse after the Last Supper: “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. If you love Me keep My commandments.” This law is revealed in Communion; the eyes of the Christian are opened in Holy Communion as were those of the disciples of Emmaus, and he understands the fullness of the law. The “breaking of bread” is what made the first Christians so brave in the face of persecution and so faithful in practicing the law of Jesus Christ. Erant perseverantes in communicatione fractionis panis. “They were persevering in the communication of the breaking of bread.” Christ’s law is one, holy, universal, and eternal. It will never change or be impaired in any way; Jesus Christ Himself, its Divine Author, is defending it. He engraves it on our hearts through His love; the Legislator Himself promulgates His Divine law to each of our souls. It is a law of love. How many kings rule by love? Jesus is about the only one Whose yoke is not imposed by force; His rule is gentleness itself. His true subjects are devoted to Him in life and death; they would rather die than be disloyal to Him.

    III. CHRISTUS imperat. Christ commands. No king has command over the whole universe; there are other kings equal to him in power. But God the Father has said to Jesus Christ: “I will give Thee all the nations for Thy inheritance.” And our Lord told His lieutenants when He sent them throughout the world: “All power is given to Me in and in earth. Go and teach ye all nations, teaching them to keep all that I have commanded you.”
    He issued His commands from the Cenacle. The Eucharistic tabernacle, which is a prolongation or replica of the Cenacle, is the headquarters of the King of kings. All those who fight the good fight receive their orders from there. In the presence of Jesus Eucharistic all men are subjects, all must obey, from the Pope, the Vicar of Jesus Christ, down to the least of the faithful. Christ commands.”

    (Citation: http://www.catholictradition.org/Eucharist/real-presence30.htm )

    *****************************************************************************************

    1. Al, Et tu!
      Great commentary. Pope Sixtus served only five years, at the end of the 16th C., a Counter Reformer. Note the wry irony in his choice of building material: “… antiquities,…were employed as raw material to serve his urbanistic and Christianising programs: Trajan’s Column and the Column of Marcus Aurelius were made to serve as pedestals for the statues of SS Peter and Paul….” So Sixtus showed the world who’s boss and who should serve whom (i.e., Trajan’s Column as Peter’s footstool)! (Wikipedia, Sixtus V)

      1. Nice detail, Margo. 🙂 Pope Sixtus certainly used an exclamation point in proclaiming that Christ is King! And what a king He is, who commanded His subjects:

        “Come to me, all you that labour, and are burdened, and I will refresh you. Take up my yoke upon you, and learn of me, because I am meek, and humble of heart: and you shall find rest to your souls.” (Matt. 11:28)

  5. How do the Protestant denominations consider themselves a ‘kingdom’ in this world, considering that a ‘kingdom’ denotes social and spiritual unity under definite hierarchical leadership which persists through generations by legitimate succession? Catholic and Orthodox (maybe Anglicans too) have this ‘kingdom type’ hierarchical structure as part of their hermeneutic, but the Protestants, and especially the Evangelicals, seem to be the exact opposite. They are less like a ‘franchise’ in structure, and more like ‘mom and pop’ churches that come and go when their pastors die, or within decades afterwards.

    At least, most Catholic and Orthodox churches can trace their hierarchy of leadership backwards in history for centuries, and some, even back to Jesus Christ. So, the earthly ‘kingdom of God’ is easily visible with these Churches. With the Protestants it is basically non-existant.

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