Last week I began a series of blogs that grew out of my reading of Professor Alan Streett’s excellent new book, Heaven on Earth: Experiencing the Kingdom of God in the Here and Now (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House, 2013). I believe this is a perfect study aimed at everyday evangelical Christians who need to grasp the centrality and importance of Jesus and his kingdom. It could not be more timely given the abysmal absence of kingdom theology in most American churches. Pastors would also profit from this book and could easily build a study around it. (Elders, deacons, councils, etc. could all read and discuss it very profitably.) But I’ve also said that ordinary Bible readers, people who want to better understand the central message of the Bible, would genuinely benefit from this book.
Only twice, in the written record of the New Testament, does out Lord Jesus Christ speak about the church by name (cf. Matthew 16 and 18). Any serious Bible reader will soon discover that Jesus spoke about his kingdom far more than about his church. This has raised a number of questions that have led the Christian Church to adopt some less-than-biblical thinking about the relationship of the church to the kingdom. After the first few centuries, and prior to the sixteenth century Reformation, the church and the kingdom were generally treated as one and the same. But even the Reformers did not entirely grasp the unique message of the kingdom. It would be several centuries more before this would happen.
In Matthew 16 the Gospel writer tells us that Jesus was passing through Caesarea Philippi and asked his disciples how others viewed him. He referred to himself as “the Son of Man,” the very title that Daniel used of the Messiah (Daniel 7:13-14). Jesus believed himself to be the “Son of Man” in Daniel thus there should be little doubt that he “believed himself to be the Messiah, the instrument and embodiment of the Reign of God” (Quoted from R. Newton Flew, Jesus and His Church: A Study of the Idea of Ecclesia in the New Testament, in R. Alan Streett, Heaven on Earth, 169). Jesus’s question seems to have been designed to see if others had a correct understanding of his role in establishing the kingdom of God. Peter says that the consensus view was that he was an end-time prophet. This leads Jesus to then ask, “But who do you say that I am?” You know Simon Peter’s response: “You are the Christ [Messiah], the Son of the living God.” Note: Christ is a title, not a name. And “Son of God” refers to his being God’s chosen king, a king who reigns on earth from the throne of David (Psalm 2:7). Peter’s reply, then, is really all about the kingdom of God. “We must not assume that Peter understands Jesus to be a Savior in the sense of taking people to heaven when they die. This concept is foreign to the Jewish mind in the first century” (Heaven on Earth, 170). Amen.
This declaration was, quite frankly, a huge shock to Jesus’ disciples. (Notice, human insight did not reveal it to Peter!) The disciples had to believe that if Jesus is the Messiah he will defeat the Romans and establish an earthly kingdom. Why then this mention of building a “church” in this specifically kingdom context? Why did the church get put into this place in Jesus’ treating? “It seems as if Jesus’ agenda is different from the expected one” (Heaven on Earth, 170). We do not see the problem here because we are used to the church being around as we know it. But how do we actually understand the church? Could it be that what we see and think about the church is profoundly wrong? I believe the answer is in the affirmative and tomorrow I will show you what Alan Streett thinks about this problem and how to correct it.