As we look around at the general troubles of the world and at the specific trials we face in our own contexts—ravaging wars, ethnic strife, poverty, pandemic, and persecution—we may wonder if God really is reigning over his world. Such doubt may not lead us to openly deny God’s purposes or providence, but it can lead us to another, much subtler distortion of the truth: that God’s reign is a purely future hope—something we eagerly await, but whose reality is quite absent from our present experience. How, then, do we trust the reality of God’s rule when there seems to be so much evidence to the contrary? This question is significant not merely for theology (where having the right answers certainly helps), but also for aligning our attitude and posture toward our Lord in the midst of the crises we face.
By including the petition “Thy kingdom come” in the model prayer he taught his disciples, Jesus refused to allow us the option to believe that his kingdom is something we inherit only after death, far away from earth rather than something we should anticipate here and now. His rule and authority first come to earth, of course, with his own coming. And wherever his will is done, there is God’s kingdom. Jesus’ intention is not to suggest that, irrespective of whether his disciples prayed or not, the kingdom would come; rather, his call to pray for the promise of its coming makes us an integral part of its coming, so that we will desire and even “hasten” its full arrival (2 Pet. 3:12).
From the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus sought to turn his disciples’ attention away from the temple as the sole location where we could meet God and receive favors, healing, and forgiveness, and to turn us to himself as the living presence of God to whom his people should flock. The overturning of the tables in the temple premises as he entered Jerusalem; the prediction about the destruction of the temple, no stone left on top of another; the prediction about his own resurrection—all testify powerfully to this shift from finding God’s presence with his people in the temple to finding it in the person of Jesus.
Our neatly compartmentalized separation between church and state should not obscure the political and social import of this shift of the kingdom’s location from the temple to Jesus. The temple was not merely the religious arena; rather, it was the religious fulcrum upon which Israel’s social, political, and economic policies also turned. The shift from the temple to Jesus meant that all the spheres of life overseen by the God of Israel—and are any left out?—would now come under the oversight of the Lord Jesus. The new creation begins in the kingdom of God here and now where Christ proclaims, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:19). The authority of Christ extends not merely over our souls but over everything there is.
The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,
the world and those who dwell therein. (Ps. 24:1)
The earthly ministry of Jesus involved teaching, preaching, healing the sick, and delivering those from the clutches of evil spirits—a ministry Luke succinctly described as “he went about doing good” (Acts 10:38). Each aspect of Jesus’ ministry is part of the establishment of his kingdom. In the history of the South Asian church, the Ecumenical party, under the influence of the Social Gospel, has tended to reduce the kingdom of God to good works and Christian engagement for the purposes of human flourishing. Despite their conspicuous omission of key facets of individual conversion and transformation in Christ’s kingdom, the Social Gospel movement rightly affirms that God’s good world demands our involvement and care.
The Evangelical party, on the other hand, has tended to focus its attention on the atoning death of Christ to save human souls to prepare us for a new world—a heavenly world that sometimes has been misunderstood as unconnected to and unconcerned with this earthly realm. This fixation on the otherworldly resulted in Christians fleeing important spheres of human engagement such as politics (giving up the space where social policies are framed), higher education (giving up the space to influence the mind of the culture and its future), and entertainment and media (giving up the space to influence public opinion).
For those of us who wish to affirm a more integrated vision of Christ’s kingdom rule, we may rightly ask the question, “How then does Christ reign here and now?” In this essay, I want to encourage you to embrace anew the present reality of Christ’s kingdom and his reign by reflecting on his supremacy, especially within three concentric spheres: the life of the individual, of the church, and of the world.
Christ’s Supremacy in Believers’ Hearts
Christ reasoned with the Pharisees that the coin that bore the embossed image of Caesar belonged to Caesar; therefore, whatever belonged to Caesar should be devoted to Caesar, and whatever belonged to God, devoted to God (Matt. 22:15–22). Whose image is embossed on every individual human being? If we bear God’s image, then we certainly belong to God. The highest devotion is to give one’s heart to one’s king. As the saying goes, “The heart of the matter is the matter of the heart.” Our highest purpose, the Westminster Shorter Catechism says, is to glorify God through hearts and lives devoted to him. The finished work of Christ inaugurates the redemption of the hearts of individual men and women, illustrating the perfect form of allegiance deserved by the perfect king.
The moment of faith in Christ may be understood as the inauguration of Christ’s rule in our hearts or the coming of God’s kingdom into our lives. “In the incarnation,” Mark C. Taylor remarks, “the Eternal becomes temporal but remains eternal; in the moment of faith, the sinner realizes the possibility of eternal blessedness (immortality), but remains temporal.” The moment of faith may therefore be seen as the subjective revelation of our king, which is the counterpart of the moment of incarnation—the objective, historical revelation of our king. If the moment of incarnation inaugurates the entrance of the ruler of the kingdom of God on earth, then the moment of faith establishes the rule of that king in our lives. The New Testament reclaims for God the authority and lordship often vested in human demigods—emperors and kings—by proclaiming Christ as the only Lord and Savior.
We who believe still await what we will be (1 John 3:2). Even our identity within the kingdom as “new creation,” accomplished by Christ’s completed redemptive work, is predicated on human incapacity to earn our salvation. The Spirit’s sanctifying presence in us, likewise, is predicated on human incapacity to live according to the kingdom’s values. Yet Christ’s finished work and the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost establish the reality of our new life. The heart of stone has been changed into a heart of flesh, and the coming of the Holy Spirit is the seal of the kingdom of God that we already possess. “In him you also, who have heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and have believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, which is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:13–14).
Therefore, the posture that Christians must assume in the world, even while facing persecution, is not to lie low and somehow stay out of trouble. This is not the posture of a heart devoted to the supreme king. Instead, Peter urges, “Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet. 3:15). Therefore, the human heart that reverences Christ’s reign and anticipates its full glory may pray with Tennyson, “Our wills are ours, to make them thine!”
Christ’s Supremacy in the Church
The church reflects the present reality of Christ’s supremacy by ordering the gathered lives of the saints by a new set of values and principles, a kingdom calculus. The kingdom that Christ inaugurates on earth is what N. T. Wright calls a “cruciform theocracy.” The human tendency to use even the cross as though it were a sword has often plagued Christians. God’s means of saving the world, however, is quite antithetical to the world’s means of bringing about change. The cross, in this sense, demonstrates how the kingship of Christ works: it shows that the king reigns in the hearts and through the lives of those he saves into loving fellowship with himself and one another.
Redemption through his sacrificial death on the cross is thus a central paradigm for Christ’s rule. How unlike the calculus of the world, where “the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their superiors exercise authority over them” (Matt. 20:25)! The mother of the sons of Zebedee requested key positions for them in King Jesus’ cabinet, generating a fair amount of jealousy among the other disciples. He warned them that the world’s thinking had crept into their own:
“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.” (Matt. 20: 24–28)
If Jesus had overthrown the Roman Empire and reestablished a Jewish kingdom as his fellow Jews had anticipated, he would have been better appreciated. However, Jesus’ upside-down kingdom overturns people’s expectations, turning the heart into his battleground more so than the geopolitical stage. Each of his soldiers is required to put their sword back into its sheath (John 18:11), turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39), love their enemies, and pray for those who persecute them (Matt. 5:44).
In Ephesians 3, Paul argues that even though this new order was kept a mystery until Christ’s coming, the Old Testament prophets understood that salvation through the covenant God established with Israel was foreordained to include the Gentiles also. Previously, those who did not belong to Israel had to come to Jerusalem to meet God, and the Gentiles had to follow the law of Moses. But now they had together become partakers of the promise in Christ (3:6). God’s kingdom is where his word and Spirit are at work bringing his saving reign, and this is not limited to Israel but now extended to all nations of the world and the whole of creation.
The church, therefore, is the sphere in which the kingdom of God is publicly established and the supremacy of Christ is openly evident. The church is where believers gather together in Jesus’ name in fellowship founded by the Holy Spirit, breaking down all divisions that keep human beings apart—whether the caste system in India or other human walls of separation. Our redeemed unity in Christ displays “the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:9–10).
This way of being in the world marks Christians out from the world as kingdom people. Yet this impetus toward being marked out cannot confine the church’s work within our own walls but ought to intentionally include work in the world. The world, however, may be the sphere where the present reality of Christ’s supremacy as king is most difficult for us to recognize.
Christ’s Supremacy in the World
Christ’s Kingdom Re-enchants the Disenchanted Spaces
In The City of God, Augustine influentially argued that the world is a mix of both the temporal city (or kingdom) of man and the eternal city (or kingdom) of God. Luther built on this idea of two kingdoms, each with distinct and visible principles of law and grace: “God has therefore ordained two regiment(s): the spiritual which by the Holy Spirit produces Christians and pious folk under Christ, and the secular which restrains un-Christian and evil folk, so that they are obliged to keep outward peace, albeit by no merit of their own.”
Although our focus is not Augustine or Luther, their distinction between two cities or kingdoms provides a framework for us to understand the warring forces at play in the “already” of the present age. We should not mistake it, however, for the modern, secular separation of church and state many of us take for granted. Often the manner in which we treat this separation—as a removal of the church’s presence or influence from the public sphere—is the exact opposite of what Jesus intended when he responded to the Pharisees’ trick question about paying taxes to Caesar.
The modern world’s attempt to expel the transcendental and the supernatural (what Charles Taylor calls disenchantment) reminds me of the cynical Lord Farquaad banishing all fairy-tale creatures from his kingdom of Duloc in the 2001 animated movie Shrek. He was not successful for long. The Western Enlightenment project presents its own secular version of the Christian story of growth and progress, into which the claims of Christ’s ever-expanding rule does not comfortably fit. The whole notion of secularization has been proven false; in fact, it depends on Christianity even while it attempts to undermine it. If left unchallenged, however, this secularist disenchanting of the world entails an expulsion of the Spirit, turning Christians into practical deists who subscribe to a belief system that retains nothing of its robust communion with God or its robust witness to the supremacy of our Lord.
Christians who are called to live as faithful citizens of the kingdom of God are not to leave our identity at the door when we enter “secular” spaces. Instead, Christians are called to re-enchant the world because the Holy Spirit, whom the world cannot see, is “in us and with us” (John 14:17). A deistic notion of Christianity, which merely acknowledges God as a metaphysical reality rather than embrace the full import of the meaning of “Immanuel, God with us,” is antithetical to a theology shaped by the present realities of the incarnation and Pentecost. “The wind blows where it wishes. You hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). Whether in ways obvious or hidden, the Spirit-empowered church bringing good news of the reigning king remains the most powerful instrument in the hands of God for the transformation of the world.
Christ’s Kingdom Fulfills and Surpasses Religious and Cultural Longings
The idea of the kingdom of God on earth is not unique to Christianity. In fact, several other religious and cultural traditions conceive of a perfect world somehow intertwined into their theological thinking. As a theologian on the Indian subcontinent, I immediately think of the popular Hindu legend of Ram-Rajya (“the kingdom of Rama”), which is infused with utopian visions of life under the reign of the god Rama, one of the avatars of Vishnu. His kingdom is imagined as “ideal in all respects, where all living beings have been endowed with auspicious qualities; where people would be completely satisfied and full of bliss; where there would be no trace of greed and lust in anyone; where no one would have to bear any kind of suffering of this material world.”
Does this sound familiar? Yet there is something crucial missing: Rama’s utopia always existed in some unspecified past. The search for Rama’s kingdom is one that looks back to what things might have been because it does not possess a future hope for what will be. It is no wonder that religious and cultural nostalgia is the prominent disposition in the Hindu social psyche rather than hope for a real future grounded in reliable promises. Apart from the promise of the new Jerusalem, we are left with only the longing for Eden.
The stark difference between Ram-Rajya and the kingdom of God is not that Hindus have no imagination of, or longing for, an ideal world where God rules with fairness and justice and evil is banished. The difference is that, unlike Ram-Rajya, the coming of Christ’s kingdom is one that is already established in Christ’s finished work of atonement and the outpouring of his Spirit. This kingdom alters our present lived reality and also points to a future fulfillment. This infuses Christians with a hope that transforms our outlook on the world and motivates our “faithful presence” in the world.
Christ’s Kingdom Establishes the Meaning and Goal of History
According to Karl Löwith, in the absence of special revelation, the early Greeks derived their conception of time from observable repetitive phenomena “like the eternal recurrence of sunrise and sunset, of summer and winter, of generation and corruption.” This is very much like the polytheistic Hindu conception and very much unlike the Judeo-Christian, in which history is moving toward a specific eschatological telos (an end and a goal). It therefore reflects what he calls “the formal structure of the meaning of history.” Löwith’s point is not that the Greeks failed to attach any significant meaning to historical events, but that “they were not meaningful in the sense of being directed toward an ultimate end in a transcendent purpose that comprehends the whole course of events”—especially the events of salvation. Christ reigns supreme over all things in part because he alone is able to give them ultimate meaning:
For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Col. 1:16–17)
It is in the present reality of the supremacy of Christ—his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and rule—that Christian hope becomes more than wishful thinking. It is a hope where the future is visible in the present, even though only in part. Our Lord promised at his ascension that he will return to seal his authority and reign on earth as king when he, along with his forces, battles the evil kingdoms of the world at the end of the age. While we still await that great battle, let us not lose sight of the reality that his authority is already established, especially as we look around at the problems we face in this world.
There are multiple stories in the history of war about how news of the enemy’s defeat or surrender in major arenas of the conflict inspired soldiers to persevere in their own smaller battles on the periphery. Even though in certain regions of Christ’s kingdom, various battles may seem like a lost cause, we possess essential intel: The war is already won. We need this good news to encourage us to remain on the battlefield, even if it means losing our lives for the king who gave his life for ours.
Walter Rauschenbusch was one of the pioneers in the Social Gospel movement.Back
Mark C. Taylor, Kierkegaard’s Pseudonymous Authorship: A Study of Time and the Self (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), 10.Back
See my essay “Third Article Theology and Apologetics,” Holy Spirit and Christian Mission in a Pluralistic Context, ed. Roji T. George (Bangalore: SAIACS Press, 2017), 202–22. See also my article “Holy Spirit, Sanctification, and South Asia,” Modern Reformation (September/October 2021): 10–17.Back
Martin Luther’s Works, Weimarer Ausgabe, ed. Ulrich Köpf, Helmar Junghans, and Karl Stackmann (Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 2001), 11.251, 15–18.Back
See Peter L. Berger, “Secularization Falsified,” First Things (February 2008). For a more detailed account of the secular as the prodigal child of Christianity, see my chapter “Tailoring Indian Secularity,” in Christian Inquiry on Polity, ed. Jeremiah A. V. Doumai (Chennai: IVP India, 2017), 39–70.Back
See “Sri Rama-Rajyam (Kingship of Sri Rama),” https://lordrama.co.in/rama-rajya.html.Back
James Davison Hunter advocates “faithful presence” as a noncoercive form of Christian influence in the world. See To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).Back
Karl Löwith, Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1946), 4.Back
Löwith, Meaning in History, 6.Back