Most of us are familiar with the Lord’s Prayer. If we didn’t learn it at school or recite it at church, we’ve undoubtedly heard it in popular films. But there is a danger with being familiar with a thing. Oftentimes, familiarity can be mistaken for understanding. We might be able to say, “Thy Kingdom come,” but that’s not the same thing as being able to explain what that really means or how it’s actually achieved.
The coming of Christ’s Kingdom ought to be the hope and prayer of every Christian. We want God’s will to be done on earth, just as it is in heaven. But how does that happen? How does the Kingdom of Heaven advance on earth? Is it through the power of military conquest? Are we to subdue Christ’s enemies with threats, force, and violence? Or is it achieved another way?
While we are commanded to pray for the advancement of Christ’s Kingdom here on earth, we are never instructed to further that Kingdom with the means through which the kings and rulers of this world advance their own. In fact, the exact opposite is the case.
When the mother of James and John attempted to secure for her sons the second and third most powerful positions in Christ’s Kingdom, Matthew tells us that the other disciples became indignant (Matt. 20:24). So, Jesus gathered them together and informed them that they had the entire system backwards. They weren’t reflecting the nature of Christ’s Kingdom, but rather, that of the non-Christian world.
Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the nations lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”Matthew 20:25-28
There are to be certain characteristics of those within Christ’s Kingdom, and those characteristics stand in stark contrast to the way the world operates in its rebellion against God. Unlike the kingdoms of this world, Christ’s Kingdom does not advance through top-down enforcement, but bottom-up servitude. Christians, the subjects of Christ’s Kingdom, don’t lord over others, but serve from beneath.
In other words, the Kingdom of God does not advance through threats of physical violence. We’re not here talking about self-defence (Ex. 22:2-3), a just war (Ex. 15:3), or the civil authority’s responsibility to wield the sword in restraining evil (Rom. 13:3-4), but whether the church — or specifically, the Christian — grows the kingdom at the edge of a sword.
Now, it’s important at this point that we don’t understand this to mean passivism, or defeatism, or retreatism. This is the repugnant and unbiblical approach of cowards. Christians are “more than conquerors” and as such, we have no business waving the white flag (Rom. 8:37). We don’t forfeit the battle. We don’t flee the fight. Instead, we take up arms, just as the Holy Spirit commands us to.
In Ephesians 6, the Apostle Paul urges Christians to dress for battle, by putting on the “whole armour of God.” We are to do this, not to fight against other people, but in order to withstand the “schemes of the devil.”
“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over the present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”Ephesians 6:12
For the Apostle, our chief enemy is spiritual, and as such, our armour ought to be the kind that can withstand his assaults. Paul tells us in the verses that follow, what this “armour of God” looks like.
“Stand, therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation…”Ephesians 6:14-17a
The subjects of Christ’s Kingdom have an obligation to dress for warfare, the most deadly and effective kind. It is spiritual warfare, and our armoury ought to be spiritually prepared with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation. But the belt, breastplate, shoes, shield, and helmet are all largely defensive items. If the Kingdom is to come, then it must advance, and if it is to advance, we must have a weapon in order to fight.
According to Paul, the weapon with which we have been entrusted is the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (v.17b). Unlike the Kingdom of Christ, the kingdoms of this world advance by shedding the blood of their opposition. They defeat their opponents with the sword of violence and the wars of men. They conquer by killing others.
In contrast, Christ established his Kingdom, not by spilling the blood of his opponents, but by shedding his own blood for them (Rev. 5:9-1). Those who hate Christ and resist his Kingdom are now overthrown, not through the sword of violence, but with the Sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:17). This is the sword that comes from our Lord’s mouth. It is the sword with which he will strike down the nations (Rve. 19:15; cf. Heb. 4:12). It is the Word of God, the Gospel, with which he equipped his subjects, the Church, to conquer Rome, Europe, and eventually, the rest of the world (Matt. 28:18; Hab. 2:14).
The Bible tells us that Christ will inherit the nations (Psa. 2:8). That he was given “dominion and glory and a kingdom, so that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Dan. 7:14). This is why the Great Commission begins with the affirmation of this truth: “Jesus said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18).
Christ does not just have all authority in heaven. He has all authority on earth too. As such, he will inherit what belongs to him, and he will obtain it by “striking down the nations” with the “sword that comes from his mouth,” namely, the Gospel. He’s not simply after land, he already owns it. He’s after people. Hence, immediately after affirming his universal Kingship, Jesus commands his disciples to disciple all nations.
Matthew Henry, commenting on the Great Commission, explains:
“What is the principal intention of this commission; to disciple all nations. Matheteusate – ‘Admit them disciples; do your utmost to make the nations Christian nations;’ not, ‘Go to the nations, and denounce the judgements of God against them as Jonah against Nineveh, and as the other Old Testament prophets’ (though they had reason enough to expect it for their wickedness), ‘but go, and disciple them.’ Christ the Mediator is setting up a kingdom in the world, bringing the nations to be his subjects; setting up a school, bring the nations to be his scholars; raising an army for the carrying on of the war against the powers of darkness, enlist the nations of the earth under his banner. The work which the apostles had to do, was, to set up the Christian religion in all places, and it was honourable work; the achievements of the mighty heroes of the world were nothing to it. They conquered the nations for themselves, and made them miserable; the apostles conquered them for Christ, and made them happy.”
The Bible tells us that eventually, all of Christ’s enemies will be placed under his feet (Psa. 110:1; 1 Cor. 15:25). Every effort may be made to resist this, to delay this, to hinder it, but eventually, as we are learning in the West, the nation that casts off Christ will soon find there is very little holding it together. Kingdoms divided don’t tend to stand very long. They may fall, but Christ’s Kingdom will continue and grow, as it has for more than two thousand years.
The victory of God’s Kingdom is guaranteed. Jesus assured it when he told his disciples that the “gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). Hell has no defence. Someday, the “kingdoms of this world will become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15). Not through military conquest, but through the Gospel, the Sword of the Spirit, which is far more powerful than the sword of violence that is often wielded against the Church. The Word of God is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12).
The reason why the Sword of the Spirit is superior to the sword of violence is that it doesn’t slay the outer man. It slays the man within. It “pierces to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). It is so powerful, in fact, that it not only caused Saul of Tarsus to forfeit his violent war against Christ’s Kingdom, it transformed him into the greatest Apostle of Christ.
The Sword of the Spirit, the Word of God, the Gospel of Christ, transforms individuals. Transformed individuals transform families. Transformed families transform communities. And transformed communities, transform nations.
Is it any wonder that Jesus said his Kingdom does not advance by lording it over others from the top down? It is a bottom-up transformation because it is an inside-out transformation. It conquers hearts, thereby conquering men. It doesn’t progress through revolution, but regeneration.
If the enemies of Christ didn’t recognise the power of the Gospel, Christians wouldn’t be the most persecuted religious group worldwide. It’s near “genocidal” levels in some parts precisely because, not only is it a threat to the powerful, it is a threat to political corruption. The degree to which the authorities deem Christianity a threat, reveals the degree to which the authorities believe in the power of the Gospel to undermine their anti-Gospel purposes. There are unavoidable consequences to radically healing the rotten root of a rotten tree. The fruit is no longer rotten.
As abolitionist James Lowell wrote:
“Show me a place on the face of the earth ten miles square where a man may provide for his children in decency and comfort, where infancy is protected, where age is venerated, where womanhood is honored, and where human life is held in due regard, and I will show you a place where the Gospel of Christ has gone and laid the foundation.”
This is why every seemingly positive political movement devoid of the Gospel is eventually doomed to fail. They may, for a time, curb the outward behaviours of men, but they can never really capture their hearts. Only Christ can do that. Not with the sword of violence and bloodshed, but with the Sword of the Spirit, the Word of God.