What we have seen, especially in Matthew 16, is that the church and the kingdom are not the same thing. The church preaches the kingdom. In the words of a 20th century theologian the church is the outpost of the kingdom in a neighborhood or community. The church serves the kingdom’s mission. As a messianic voluntary association the church “carries our Messiah’s agenda, just as other voluntary associations carried out Caesar’s agenda” (Heaven on Earth, 176). But what are the “keys” that are mentioned here in Matthew 16 with regard to the gospel of the kingdom that is entrusted to the church?
Streett correctly suggests that Jesus is “not specific [but] they [the keys] likely represent the good news of the kingdom, which calls on people to repent and believe” (Heaven on Earth, 176). The church is “at the center of Christ’s kingdom plans from the time of his ascension to his return at the end of the age. He uses people to carry out his mission” (Heaven on Earth, 177). Binding and loosing relates to being bound in sin and being forgiven of sin. This message is given to the whole church, not just to priests, ministers or bishops.
So what does this mean for the mission of the church? “After Jesus’s death and glorification, the church becomes God’s agent on earth, pointing people toward the kingdom. This eschatological mission involves, among other things, preaching the true gospel” (Heaven on Earth, 177, the italics are my own). The primary elements of this “true gospel” can be seen in Paul’s summary in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. Debates about various aspects of how the gospel is applied are very important but they are not “the gospel.” This common mistake is especially made by conservative Protestants.
The church is commissioned, and not Christians as lone rangers, to “disciple all nations” (Matthew 28:18-20). When the disciples asked Jesus if he was going to restore his kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6) he explained that the timing of the kingdom is God’s responsibility but our responsibility is to take the gospel to the far reaches of the world, discipling all the nations!
But who are the nations he means here? The term likely refers to all Gentile nations given the biblical context. Consider Isaiah 66 and read it in the light of Acts 17:26, 30. The Book of Acts is an account of the gospel of the kingdom reaching beyond Israel to the known Roman world of the day. Wherever people responded to the good news they were baptized and thus new churches were planted in every city and place. “God has appointed the church–with the keys of the kingdom in hand–to be his means of getting his gospel to the nations. The church must ever be kingdom focused and kingdom driven” (Heaven on Earth, 179). From Revelation 7:9-10 we know that the end of the mission will be accomplished because Christ is Lord.
But, we should ask, what has the cross to do with the mission and the kingdom? The cross becomes central in the epistles yet the kingdom gospel is not lost in the process. How can this be?
Perhaps the most baffling aspect of this entire kingdom agenda is the cross. The followers of Jesus could not grasp the meaning of his death until after it had happened and the Spirit had come to make it plainly known to them. To put this question as simply as possible: “What is a King doing on a Roman cross?”
The Gospel writers want us to understand that the death of the Messiah was necessary to bring God’s kingdom. God’s plan depends on it. “Apart from the cross the kingdom is not possible. This has been God’s plan all along, as he revealed to the Old Testament prophets” (Heaven on Earth, 198-99).
N. T. Wright has demonstrated rather clearly that Isaiah 52-55 lays out the sequence of events necessary to usher in God’s kingdom. There are five steps in a progression he lays out here:
- God announces that the kingdom is at hand (Isaiah 52:1-12).
- The Messiah suffers and establishes God’s covenant of peace (Isaiah 52:13–53:12).
- God declares his love and invites the thirsty to drink of the Spirit (Isaiah 54:1–55:4).
- Gentiles rush into the kingdom (Isaiah 55:5-11).
- All creation is transformed (Isaiah 55:12-13).
Simply put the sequence that we read in Isaiah 52-55 is the path that Jesus must follow to bring in the kingdom of God. “He announces that the kingdom is at hand, he suffers and establishes God’s covenant of peace, he invites the thirsty to drink of the Spirit, Gentiles rush into the kingdom, and finally, creation will be transformed” (Heaven on Earth, 200).
When you understand this your entire paradigm for the gospel and the kingdom will be completely transformed. The implications are, quite honestly, exciting. At the heart of my understand of the word missional is this theology of the kingdom.