Certain expressions are part of the Evangelical stock. We are so accustomed to the use of these expressions that we seldom pause and ask why we say what we say or, more importantly, are these expressions consistent with what the Scripture teaches. In this essay, I will explore one particular expression which we often use, “expansion of God’s kingdom.” This is an expression we hear in relation to evangelism and mission and ask how consistent is this to God’s vision of bringing every nation under his rule.
As we look at this expression more closely, three sets of important questions need answers. First, we need to look into the origin of this expression. Where did this expression come from? Why do evangelicals use this expression? What do we mean by it and what could be the underlying assumptions in the use of such expression? Second, we need to inquire about the ancient Jewish understanding of God’s kingdom that shaped Jesus’ and the early Christians’ understanding of God’s kingdom. How did the ancient Jews understand the kingdom of God? What do the OT and other earlier Jewish writings say about God’s kingdom? Third, we need to examine the Gospel writers’ understanding of God’s kingdom. How did Jesus present the kingdom of God? What did the Gospel writers say about the growth of the Christian movement? More importantly, did Jesus envision the expansion of God’s kingdom?
ORIGIN OF THE LANGUAGE
The expression “expansion of God’s kingdom” is never used in the Scripture. Although some may claim that just like the word “Trinity,” some expressions may not be used in the Bible, but the scriptural truth justifies its use. As for the use of the expression “expanding God’s kingdom,” passages like the parable of the sower can be used to argue that the teaching has scriptural basis. The validity of this claim is what we want to explore in this essay.
The one who originally coined the expression is hard to trace. What is evident, however, is that the use of the expression is common today, especially among the English-speaking evangelicals and those influenced by them. Moreover, the missionary motivations and assumptions during the colonial era is comparable to the assumptions behind our desire to expand God’s kingdom.
Mission and colonization go hand-in-hand during the colonial period. Take the Spanish colonization of the Philippines, for instance; with a sword in one hand and a cross in the other, the Roman Catholic mission and the occupation of the islands happened concurrently. Conquest and mission were inseparable. John Leddy Phelan describes an illustration from Gaspar de San Agustin’s Conquistas de las islas Philipinas (Madrid, 1698) as a depiction of “the complementary nature of the spiritual and temporal conquest of the islands.” The illustration depicts an army on the right side led by a man labeled “Philippus II” (King Philip II of Spain) with another man behind him labeled “M. L. de Legaspi” (Miguel López de Legaspi). The illustration shows King Philip pointing to a map showing the major islands of the Philippines. On the left side of the illustration, there depicts a man who looks like the pope wearing the mitre and carrying a ferula on his right arm. He is also holding a book with his right hand that shows a portion of Isaiah 8:18, and with his left hand he holds a heart on which rays of light from above shine and from which the light reflects to the map of the Philippines. Behind the pope is a man holding a compass, and some monks. This group of men on the left is labeled “D. Augustinus,” “F. Andræas Urdaneta,” and “F. Martinus de Rada.” Below the map are the words from Isaiah 24:15 from the Vulgate. The caption at the bottom of the picture expresses the desire of Spain to extend its empire to the ends of the earth, and together with the Augustinian friars bring God’s light to the nations. Phelan describes Spain’s expeditions this way,
Spanish expansion overseas retained many of the characteristics of the centuries-long reconquista of Spain from the Moors. Both enterprises were essentially military in character, Christian proselytizing, and territorially acquisitive. The military subjugation of the infidels—be they Moors, Indians, or Asiatics—and the imposition of Christianity form one continuous temporal and spatial sequence in Spanish history.
The three elements are present in their conquest: military expedition, proselytization, and territorial expansion. The expansion of an earthly kingdom is seen as a concurrent event in what is thought to be an expansion of God’s kingdom; and oftentimes, earthly battles are seen as divine battles. Although missionary activities in the present generation are no longer seen as a necessary complement to colonization, in many instances, mission and evangelism are still understood in terms of divine conquest of the nations. This raises the question whether this is what Jesus envisioned when He gave his disciples the Great Commission. We will address this question in more detail in the last section of this work, but in preparation for this inquiry, we must first understand how the OT and some earlier Jewish writings present the kingdom of God.
ANCIENT JEWISH UNDERSTANDING OF DIVINE AND EARTHLY KINGDOMS
The account of the war between Israel and Syria in 1 Kings 20 shows the various understanding of ancient people about the divine kingdoms. King Ben-hadad of Syria declared war against Israel by claiming ownership of all that belongs to King Ahab of Israel (1 Kgs 20:1–6). Despite the size of Ben-hadad’s army, Ahab was victorious during their first encounter (20:20); and the servants of Ben-hadad came to him with this advice, “Their gods are gods of the hills, and so they were stronger than we. But let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they” (20:23). For many ancients, the gods have their own territories. This idea is similar to the Chinese idea of the tŭ dì gōng (土地公) or “earth god” and the tiān gōng (天公) or “god of heaven.”
In response to the Syrians’ claim about the territorial gods, “Thus says the LORD, ‘Because the Syrians have said, “The LORD is a god of the hills but he is not a god of the valleys,” therefore I will give all this great multitude into your hand, and you shall know that I am the LORD’” (20:26). In short, Ahab’s victory was not brought about by his faithfulness to the God of Israel, but because of the wrong assumption of the Syrians. The story did not end well for Israel, because despite God’s promise of total victory for Israel (20:29–30), Ahab set Ben-hadad free, thus rejecting God’s promise (20:31–34).
In another account about the leprous Syrian commander Naaman, a slave girl from Israel advised him to seek Elisha for healing. The prophet instructed him to dip himself seven times in the Jordan River, and after doing so, he was healed of his leprosy. After Naaman was healed, he was convinced of God’s power and made this comment, “Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel” (2 Kgs 5:15). Although he acknowledged that there is only one true God, Naaman still thought that God’s presence remains confined only within Israel. Thus, he thought that the least he can do is to get soil from land where God dwells and use it to build altar for him (5:17).
God was acknowledged as the ruler of Israel. The earthly kingdom of Israel is called the “kingdom of the LORD” (1 Chr 28:5; 2 Chr 13:8). The kingdom of God, however, is not limited to the nation of Israel. God’s reign over all nations and over all creation is clear in many parts of the Scripture, however. His reign is proclaimed, not only in Israel, but also among the nations. For instance, David announces, “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations” (Ps 22:27–28). In another psalm, the sons of Korah say, “God reigns over the nations; God sits on his holy throne” (47:8). And an unidentified psalmist declares, “The LORD is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens” (113:4).
It is easier to understand why God is the ruler over Israel, because He had chosen them and made a covenant with them so that they will be his people and he will be their God (Exod 29:45; Jer 32:38; Ezek 11:20; 37:23; Zech 8:8). This raises the question about God’s reign over the other nations. On what basis is He king over the Gentiles? The answer is simple: by virtue of being the Creator. Paul once preached, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth” (Acts 17:24). Both non-canonical and canonical writings acknowledge God’s kingship over all the earth on the basis of being the Creator. The high priest Simon once prayed, “Lord, Lord, king of the heavens, and sovereign of all creation, holy among the holy ones, the only ruler, almighty, give attention to us who are suffering grievously from an impious and profane man, puffed up in his audacity and power. For you, the creator of all things and the governor of all, are a just Ruler, and you judge those who have done anything in insolence and arrogance” (3 Macc 3:2–3, RSV). Similarly, the prophet Isaiah declares, “O LORD of hosts, God of Israel, enthroned above the cherubim, you are the God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth” (Isa 37:16).
Interestingly, in many instances, the context in which God is referred to as the king over all nations is judgment against the nations. Craig A. Evans points out, “we find in the Scriptural antecedents the confession that God is king, that he is enthroned, and that he will bring judgment on behalf of his people.” The legitimacy of God’s judgment is based on the fact that he is the ruler over all nations, and he is the ruler over all nations because he created all of them. Earthly rulers reign because it was God who appointed them. This explains why Jesus told Pontius Pilate, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11).
As the Creator, it is but right for him to require everyone to obey his laws. Isaiah summarizes the relationship between God’s judgment and his reign with this declaration, “For the LORD is our judge; the LORD is our lawgiver; the LORD is our king; he will save us” (Isa 33:22). God is unlike the conquistadores of the world who subjugates the nations by force, usurping power when they should not, and taking territories that do not belong to them. On the contrary, all nations are supposed to be under God simply because he is the Creator, but the nations have rebelled against him and refused to acknowledge his kingship. Their refusal to acknowledge him as king did not and will never change the fact that he is king over all nations.
God is already king over all nations making the expansion of his kingdom unnecessary. His kingship gave him the right to judge those who refuse to acknowledge his rule. Thus, his reign must be proclaimed. The same mindset is evident in the New Testament.
JESUS’ VISION OF GOD’S KINGDOM: PROCLAMATION, NOT EXPANSION
The reign of God is the goal of mission. As Peter C. Phan explains, “For what is mission? Exclusively for the Reign of God, or simply God. Anything else that is made into the goal of mission, even as noble as church growth is or the salvation of souls, smacks of idolatry.”
John’s theology of creation and God’s reign is clear in the first chapter of the Gospel. Concerning the Divine Word he says, “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:10–11). His kingship does not guarantee that the people will acknowledge him as king; and this is because, as John and Paul agrees, another being made this claim to lordship—the “god of this world” under whom belongs the “whole world” (1 Cor 4:4; 1 John 5:19).
There is a battle between two rulers, but it is not between two equally powerful rulers who are trying their best to outdo the other and conquer the other’s territory. This battle is between the legitimate king and the usurper, between the true God and the impostor who tried to claim divine authority, between the eternal ruler and the thief who tried to steal the kingdom from the real king. John’s vision is that a day will come that “[t]he kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev 11:15). The Creator is not there to take what belongs to others; on the contrary, he is simply reclaiming what rightfully belongs to him. This means the story of Jesus’ temptation wherein Satan offers him all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worship is nothing more than an empty bluff (Matt 4:8–9; Luke 4:6–7). First, Satan cannot bring to the negotiating table what he does not have or what does not rightfully belong to him; and second, handing over the kingdom to Jesus is not something for Satan to do, but only for the Father to do (Matt 11:27; 28:18).
Military images and metaphors abound in the NT. Paul presents Christ as the conqueror who defeated the powers of evil. His conquest and victory over the evil forces, however, is inseparable from his work of reconciling all creation to himself. Reconciliation happens only between two parties who formerly had good relationship which had gone bad. Former friends, that is the relationship between God and humans before the Fall, now separated by sin and they became enemies. Paul envisioned the reconciliation between these two parties so that these enemies would become former enemies, because they had been reconciled through Christ.
The image of Jesus as a conqueror in the NT can also be found in Revelation 21:11–21. He is the Faithful and True who brings judgment against those who rebelled against God, reclaiming what is rightfully his. In most of the New Testament, God’s reign over his creation and over all nations is a given, but not everyone is aware of this truth (Acts 17:30; Rom 10:3; Eph 4:18; 1 Tim 1:13; 1 Pet 1:14). They need to be informed of this truth. No wonder the message of God’s kingdom needs to be proclaimed.
Isaiah foresaw the herald who will bring good news and say to Israel, “Behold, your God” (Isa 40:9). He is the voice in the wilderness (40:3); which the Gospel writers interpret as a reference to John the Baptizer (Matt 3:3; Luke 3:4). John’s task is to prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah by initially proclaiming the kingdom of God (Matt 3:1–2). As king, God requires his subjects to observe his commands. The people’s disobedience cannot, does not, and will not make God a lesser king; human disobedience only shows they are rebellious. God’s authority over them remains even if they refused to acknowledge it. Their refusal to acknowledge God’s reign only invites judgment against them.
Jesus came preaching the same message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 4:17). A call to repentance is an appropriate companion to the declaration of God’s rule. The call to repentance is the invitation to return to God. We can only return to a place from where we originally came. We all belong to God, sin made us his enemies; and Jesus’ finished work was to bring us back to God. This has been the summary of Jesus’ earthly ministry, “And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people” (4:23, italics mine); and again, “And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction” (9:35, italics mine). Jesus’ proclamation of God’s kingdom was accompanied through exorcisms that show God’s supreme power over evil. Hence, we need not see the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan as two equally powerful kingdoms fighting for ultimate supremacy. The battle is between the supreme ruler reclaiming what is rightfully his and the leader of a rebellious faction who took what he should not have claimed for himself.
Luke describes the ministry of Jesus and his disciples this way, “Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him” (Luke 8:1, italics mine). When Jesus sent the disciples out, he gave them the instruction do the same, as Luke describes it, “and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal” (9:2). The work continues, and as the gospel goes beyond the boundaries of Israel, spreading the message of God’s reign is understood in terms of proclamation, not conquest. No wonder Paul’s missionary trips are described as a proclamation of the kingdom (Acts 20:25; 28:31).
CONCLUSION AND REFLECTION
Many earthly rulers ambitiously desire to dominate the world. This is the reason national borders constantly change over the centuries. Territories that used to belong to one nation are now occupied by another, because human regents have set their eyes on expanding their own kingdom.
What we see from the Scripture is that God’s intent is diametrically opposite of what these earthly rulers desire. God is not the ambitious ruler who wants to take territories and subjugate people groups that do not really belong to him. If we continue to think of God as one who is in the business of expanding his kingdom, are we not simply creating God in the image of the ambitious human king?
Moreover, when Christians talk about doing mission as an expansion of God’s kingdom, oftentimes we refer to the enlargement of the reach of our ministry. What this means is that the broader the reach of our work, the larger the kingdom of God. The claim sounds presumptuous, to say the least, albeit unintentional. This means that God’s reign can only go as far as our ministry can reach. If this is the case, whose kingdom are we really expanding?
We may over-spiritualize the expression by saying that God’s conquest is the conquest of the hearts of people and that the expansion of God’s kingdom happens when people begin to acknowledge his reign and live according to his requirements. We must understand, however, that there is a difference between God being King, and us acknowledging him as King. God is King whether we acknowledge him as one; and he remains King even if we do not acknowledge his reign. He is King even over those who reject or those who are not aware of his kingship. He remains King over them, and this is why He has the right to judge those who insist in their rebellion. This is the reason Jesus calls his disciples to proclaim God’s rule, not to expand his kingdom.
Samson L. Uytanlet
Dr. Samson L. Uytanlet is the Academic Dean of the Biblical Seminary of the Philippines and Biblical Studies Program Director of the Asia Graduate School of Theology in the Philippines. He is the Pastor of Gerizim Evangelical Church. Dr. Uytanlet holds a PhD in New Testament from London School of Theology, UK. He is the author of Luke-Acts and Jewish Historiography (Mohr Siebeck, 2014.