Thoughts from a book you’ve never heard of on the Kingdom of God by Lesslie Newbigin

Thursday afternoon I found myself up in the library of Regent College to conduct a bit of historical research for an Evangelical Covenant class I’m taking. As Serendipity would have it, I picked up a small book which was completely unhelpful for my purposes but worthwhile anyway. The book was called Sign of the Kingdom, and its author is the late missional thinker Lesslie Newbigin.

This is a tiny little book is long out of print. It was originally published in the UK in 1980 (under a different title) and it comes from 1979 Waldenström Lectures at the Theological Seminary of the Swedish Covenant Church (at Stockholm). I really was happy to find it for several reasons. First, I have an academic and practical interest in the Missional church and love everything I read by Lesslie Newbigin. Secondly, I get annoyed at the contemporary authors and speakers who act like the kingdom of God wasn’t recovered as important theological motif until missional thinkers and NT Wright started waxing eloquent on it in the mid 1990’s. Last year I attended a workshop on the missional church where the presenter made the dubious claim that there was not one single book on the kingdom of God in the 1980’s. While I didn’t believe him, most of the titles that popped into my head, were actually from the 1970’s not the 80’s. So I’m happy to have found a book that proves him wrong (yes, I am that petty). But most importantly, this book has some great things to say about the Kingdom of God.

This is a really short (70 pages) booklet but it packs a serious punch. I think one of the interesting things about Newbigin, is while he certainly wrote for his context, a lot of what he says has real import for today.  In three parts Newbigin explores the theme of Kingdom and its relationship to mission. Part one addresses the historic perspective, part two, the biblical perspective and part three sketches the importance for today (which would be 1980). While all three sections have sections worth pondering, part two is the section I keep rereading.  Newbigin makes five basic points about ‘the time being fulfilled and the Kingdom of God being at hand’ which are worth pondering:

  1. This is the announcement of a happening. It is news!
  2. The subject of this happening is the malkuth Yahweh, the Kingdom of the God of Israel. This is public news not restricted to the religious sphere and ‘private sector’ but cosmic in its scope. While Yahweh’s kingship is not exactly ‘news,’ with this announcement, God’s sovereignty has become a present reality with which one has to come to terms.
  3. The announcement is linked to the call to repent (“repent now and believe in the gospel”). The call to repent, means that the entire nation is turned the wrong way looking for salvation in the wrong direction. Until they turn, the Kingdom of God is hidden from view.
  4. The response will be–not open vision–but faith (i.e. we understand the reign of God is a present reality though faith) This faith is not a human decision but is a gift of God to those who are called.
  5. This call begins immediately (all five of these points are cribbed or completely quoted from pages 24-26).

Newbigin also says several other things which I will quote at length (most of the rest of this post is quotes). I just think these selections capture wonderfully what the Kingdom is, or experience of it and what it is all about:

Jesus did indeed preach the  kingdom, but the only thing that made his preaching news was the kingdom was present in himself. Faithfulness to the mission and message of Jesus absolutely required that the early Church should have Jesus as the centre of their gospel. If they had simply preached about the kingdom of God there would have been no gospel. The news is that ‘the kingdom of God’ is no longer merely a theological phrase. There is now a name and a human face. This is why there is a gospel: the reign of God has drawn near, and we can speak of what we have seen and heard and handled (32-33).

Newbigin reflects on the disciples question about when the Kingdom comes in fullness and asks can we expect the manifest reign of God now? He offers a two part answer. First addressing the ways in which ‘the Kingdom of God’ is a warning:

The answer of Jesus is in the double form of warning and promise. It is first of all warning: it is not for you to know the times or the seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority. The kingdom is simply, the reign of God. This is so fundamental that is is constantly forgotten. We are not dealing here with a programme, a campaign, a promotional ‘drive’ for which the techniques of high pressure salesmanship or military planning would be appropriate.  Nor are we engaged in the support of a ‘good cause’ of which it is possible to optimistic or pessimistic. . . .It is not possible to be optimistic or pessimistic about the sovereignty of God! It is simply a fact. The question about which everyone has to inquire is the question: am I living in total faithfulness, trust and loving obedience to him who is sovereign? The sharp words of Jesus have to be heeded in every situation–whether the temptation to worldly optimism or pessimism. Our attention is directed to God himself. He alone is king. What is called for in us is total trust which–whether in success or in failure–simply places all its hope in him; which accepts the promise: Fear not, little flock, it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

I think this is a warning to be heeded as we take the theme of the kingdom as a clue for missionary thinking. There is a very easy but fatal shift that can take place by which the language of the Bible, which always points to the personal presence and action of God, is converted into language which points to programmes of our own. . . .The biblical language is centered in the reality of the living God–his faithfulness and kindness. The other kind of language leads quickly into an ideology which is centered entirely in one’s expectations about the possibilities of political action. The biblical language has been for so long (and especially in our western culture)  interpreted in a purely private and pietistic sense divorced from the realities and obligations of political life, that a correction was urgently needed.  But in making this correction it is important that one does not lose that which is central to the biblical witness–the formidable reality of God who alone is the sovereign of his kingdom (34-36).

But Newbigin also points us to the ways in which the Kingdom of God is recieved from God as a promise and a gift:

The answer of Jesus to the question of the disciples is, in the second place, a promise. ‘You will recieve power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you shall be my witnesses. . .’ The first point to be noted is that it is a promise, not a command. Witness is not a burden laid upon the Church. It is not part of the law. It is gospel, gift, promise. We misinterpret the whole thrust of the New Testament when we convert this into a law, a burden laid upon the consciences of Christians. There is a profound inner necessity which leads Christians to bear witness of Jesus and Paul’s letters bear ample evidence of this. But neither Paul nor any of the other New Testament writers can be found laying the duty of witness as a burden upon the consciences of their readers. Failure to observe this point, I think, has had grievous consequences for the life of the Church. What is given here is not a command but a promise.

How is the promise related to the question? The question is about the Kingdom, the promise is about that which is the foretaste, the first-fruit- the arrabon of the Kingdom–namely the gift of the Spirit. The word arrabon which is (I am told) still used in colloquial Arabic, expresses vividly what is otherwise expressed in such metaphors as ‘foretaste’ and ‘firstfruit.’ An arrabon is a payment which is, on the one hand, solid cash which can be spent like any other money, and, on the other hand, is a sign and pledge of full payment to come.  It is not a verbal promise. It is real cash. Yet its significance is far more than its actual cash value; it is the assurance of more to come. The Holy Spirit is such an arrabon of the Kingdom. It is, on the one hand, a real foretaste of the love and joy and peace which are the very substance of God’s rule. But–on the other hand–it is not yet the fulness of these things. It is the solid pledge which gives assurance that the fulness is coming. And this what constitutes witness. It is not the lantern which a traveller in the dark carries in his hand; it is the glow on his face which reflects the coming dawn. It is pure gift. It is not an accomplishment of the one who bears witness but rather a gift which comes from beyond him and so directs men’s attention away from the bearer to the source of the gift–to the light in the eastern sky. In this sense one must say that the Church is not the author of the witness; it is not that the Church bears witness and the Spirit helps the Church to do so. This kind of language completely misses the point.  The point is that the Church is the place where the Spirit is present as witness. The witness is not thus an accomplishment of the Church but a promise to the church. (36-38)

Finally, Newbigin closes this chapter with these words:

. . .apart from the living community in which there is already a foretaste of the reality of the Kingdom, a present experience of its joy and freedom, the preaching of the kingdom becomes mere ideology. We have seen this happen in the past when ‘kingdom’ has been separated from ‘church’  in missionary thinking. When abstract nouns replace the biblical language about God’s just and loving rule, this is what happens–and the sane us trye wgetger these nouns are such as were popular fifty years ago (‘social progress’, ‘civilisation’, etc.) or such as are popular now (‘liberation’, ‘justice’, etc.). The content of the preaching of the Kingdom can never be any such concepts; it can only be Jesus himself, incarnate, crucified, and risen. The hermeneutic can only be the living reality of a community which the first fruits of the Kingdom are already being enjoyed and shared. This will be a community which shares fully in solidarity with the suffering of the oppressed and therefore shares the secret of Christ’s vicotry over death and the hope of the completion of that victory over death and the hope of the completion of that victory at the end. The whole of the eighth chapter of Romans is a picture of such a community sharing in the trubulation of Jesus and therefore sharing also in the assurance, hope, and joy of his victory. Such a community will be the living hermeneutic of the message of the Kingdom which it preaches. There can be no other (42-3).

It is a shame, that this little book hasn’t been more widely read. Seriously good stuff!