Luke 17:20-30 (text); Daniel 7:13-14; Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 48
March 10, 2013 • Preached at Trinity Covenant Reformed Church and Pasig Covenant Reformed Church
Last Sunday, we studied the first petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Hallowed be your name.” The first petition is actually more than a petition—it is also a praise, an adoration. We honor and ascribe holiness to his majestic name. And through our thoughts, words and deeds, we pray that others will turn from their evil ways and also honor and hallow his name. Today, we continue studying the Lord’s Prayer, and we come to the second petition, “Your kingdom come.”
Certainly, this petition refers to the kingdom of God. The term “kingdom of God” is very familiar to all Christians. Even pseudo-Christian cults use this name: Quiboloy’s The Kingdom of Jesus Christ; or the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ place of worship called Kingdom Hall. Of course, they use the term to refer to their false teachings about God and his kingdom.
The phrase “kingdom of God” occurs 59 times in the four Gospels and Acts, and 8 times in Paul’s letters. The Gospel of Matthew uses “kingdom of God” only 5 times, while using “kingdom of heaven” 32 times. He did so not because he distinguishes between the meaning and nature of the two terms, but because his audience were primarily Jews who didn’t want to say the sacred name of God.
Even when it is obvious that the terms “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” are identical, many people erroneously insist in making a distinction between these terms. They say the kingdom of God is earthly, referring to Israel, while the kingdom of heaven is spiritual, the Church. But this is a phantom distinction, because these two terms are used interchangeably by Jesus and the New Testament writers. For example, in Matthew 19:23-24, Jesus uses “kingdom of heaven” first, then, “kingdom of God” in saying that it is extremely difficult for a rich man to be saved (see also Matt 25:1 and 26:29). How about some parallel passages? In Matthew 4:17, Jesus preaches, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” But in Mark 1:15, he proclaims, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
These are but samplings of many Scripture texts that show the interchangeability of these two terms (see Matt 8:11-Luke 13:29; Matt 11:11-Luke 7:28; Matt 13:33-Luke 13:20-21). As previously noted, the only reason why “kingdom of heaven” is used by Matthew is because his audience were Jews, and not because it is distinct from the “kingdom of God.” In the Lord’s Prayer itself, these two names are interchanged, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.”
Note that the catechism establishes a close relationship between the kingdom of God and the visible church. There are even a few Scripture texts that seem to equate the kingdom and the church of the elect. In the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds in Matthew 13:24-30, the kingdom of heaven is likened to a field in which both wheat and weeds grow together. At the end of the age, both of them are harvested together, separated, and sent to different destinations. Jesus then concludes, “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear” (Matt 13:43). The church, consisting of the righteous, will inherit the kingdom of God. (See also Matt 8:11-12; 13:47-50.)
Louis Berkhof says that “the visible Church may certainly be said to belong to the Kingdom, to be a part of the Kingdom, and even to be the most important visible embodiment of the forces of the Kingdom.” Therefore, although the kingdom and the church are not identical, God uses the church as his instrument in the establishment and extension of his kingdom.
What really is this kingdom? The kingdom of God is hard to define, since neither the Bible nor even Jesus offer no clear definition. But in harmonizing all the things said in Scripture about this kingdom, Bible scholars have offered their own definitions. Berkhof has a simple one: “the rule of God established and acknowledged in the hearts of sinners.” Anthony Hoekema expands this definition: “the reign of God dynamically active in human history through Jesus Christ, the purpose of which is the redemption of his people from sin and from demonic powers, and the final establishment of the new heavens and the new earth.” Notice again that both of them mention “the rule of God” and “the reign of God.” The Greek word used for kingdom can actually be translated as “kingship, royal power, royal rule” and “royal reign.” In effect, we’re actually praying, “Your royal reign come.”
But why do we pray to God, “Your kingdom come”? Why did Jesus command us to pray this prayer? Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 123 says that by praying this often, we are submitting more and more to the rule of God over us. The effect of this submission on us is two-fold. First, we pray that God would preserve and increase his Church by destroying the works of the devil. Second, we pray that the fullness of God’s kingdom will come.
Praying for the Preservation of the Kingdom
Our text in Luke 17:20-30 begins where the Pharisees ask Jesus when the kingdom of God would come. But Jesus answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ Why did Jesus say this, when in other places, he says that when he came preaching the gospel, healing the sick, casting demons out, and performing signs and wonders, the kingdom has come upon them (Matt 12:28). When John the baptizer sent messengers to Jesus to ask if he was truly the coming Messiah, Jesus told them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them” (Luke 7:22; see also Luke 10:9; Luke 11:20).
The Jews saw and heard all these things, but they did not believe. Now they ask for signs in the heavens so they may know that the kingdom is coming, such as lightning that “lights up the sky from one side to the other” (v 24). Jesus’ preaching and power over sickness, people and demons signified that he had inaugurated the kingdom of God when he started his earthly ministry. He is not only the Son of David (Matt 12:23), but the King of God’s own kingdom who has power over Satan and his demons. Through his preaching and divine power, he overcomes Satan’s kingdom. This inauguration is not as spectacular as “wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke … the sun [turning] to darkness, and the moon to blood” (Joel 2:30-31).
Jesus also told them that the kingdom of God that he started establishing is not going to be a powerful military or political kingdom, but is the rule and reign of God in people’s hearts and lives. This is why he says, “The kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” Later, at his trial, Pilate asked if he was the king of the Jews, but he answered, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Why then do so many people insist that Jesus’ purpose in his first and second comings was to establish an earthly kingdom?
The Jews heard his preaching of the good news of salvation. They saw his miraculous signs and wonders to authenticate his claim of being the Christ, the Son of the living God. But they did not believe. Jesus was not going to give them spectacular signs, but the ignominious and shameful sign of his suffering and death, “But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation” (Luke 17:25). In their unbelief, all unrepentant Jews and Gentiles will be going through their lives as usual, eating and drinking, marrying, laying up treasures for themselves, and having a good time in this world, when suddenly, like a thief in the night, Jesus would return to complete the fullness of his kingdom.
But before his coming, Jesus commands us to pray, “Your kingdom come.” The Catechism tells us that the meaning of praying this is first of all, that God would preserve the kingdom through the church. But what does “preservation” involve? When we pray for the preservation of the church, we ask God to keep the church not just physically strong, but spiritually strong. So that when sin comes, we return in repentance. When persecutions and sufferings come, we are comforted and strengthened by the Spirit and pray without ceasing for our needs to be provided.
How does God keep the church spiritually healthy? First, he uses his Word, the Holy Bible. Personally, we are to read and meditate daily on his Word, alone and with our families. As a church, we are to study his Word together, so we can be guarded, admonished, and even disciplined by the church when we stray from the truths in God’s Word. The church is preserved when we listen to the Word read and preached every Lord’s Day, and when we sing and pray God’s Word in the Psalms. This is why Paul commands Timothy and all ministers of the Word, “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word” (2 Tim 4:1-2).
Second, God uses his Spirit to preserve the church. The Spirit “guides us into all truth” (John 16:13). He leads ministers of the Word into sound doctrine (Tit 1:9; 2:10). The Holy Spirit indwells all believers and guides us in our personal and congregational lives. He keeps us away from sinning continually. He preserves the church by being present with his people in their worship, and guiding them in their doctrines. He keeps our faith in Christ alive, because he is Lord and Giver of Life (Nicene Creed). In our Reading of the Law, we read that all evildoers will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-10). Evildoers have no fruits of the Spirit, but only only the evil works of the flesh (Gal 5:19-23). So Paul says that the kingdom of God is not about rules and feasts and works, but “of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17).
Third, God uses his sacraments to preserve and nourish his church. They are means by which we receive the benefits of Christ’s sacrificial work to atone for all our sins. Baptism signifies our being cleansed from sin and all unrighteousness. The Lord’s Supper signifies his broken body and shed blood given for you, and it nourishes our souls for spiritual strength.
The Catechism also says that praying to God, “Your kingdom come,” also means praying that his church “increase.” This is not only spiritual “increase,” but numerical increase. Yes, we pray for spiritual strength and maturity, but we are to pray as well that we will not be satisfied with our small number. True, this numerical increase occurs when more babies are born in the congregation. But the increase must also come from others who stray into our area and join us. It must also come from our own communities when we invite family and friends—believers and unbelievers alike—personally and even through Facebook, to our worship services and Bible studies. And it is the Spirit who gives new life to unbelievers who visit us and are added to the number in the church, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). All those who acknowledge that they are sinful, “poor in spirit,” are blessed, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:3).
In the same way that God preserves the church, he also increases the church through Word, Spirit, and sacraments. Through the Word preached, the Spirit creates faith in the hearts of unbelievers. He then indwells them and guides them into holy and blameless lives. They are also spiritually fed with water, bread and wine in the sacraments. Through these, there is increase in our numbers, and we should rejoice when we start having the “problem” of not enough seats and space every Lord’s Day!
In our call to worship in Psalm 96:1-3, God commands his people, “Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples.” To be sure, we may declare God’s glory through our deeds, but God also commands us his people to declare his marvelous works of creation and redemption with words. So we declare, “The Lord reigns!” (v 10) because his kingdom has already come when Jesus inaugurated his preaching and miracles 2,000 years ago.
And when we pray, “Your kingdom come,” we pray knowing that God promises to answer our prayers. What did Jesus promise about his kingdom? “The gates of Hades [hell] shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18). He promises to build his church and through the church, his kingdom is established. When Christ came, he turned the tables on Satan and his kingdom, because the assault on the gates of Satan’s kingdom began with the preaching of the gospel. To plunder the house of Satan the strongman, Christ first bound him, so that after his resurrection, thousands upon thousands of people believed in him, not only in Jerusalem, but in all the nations of the world. Now Satan is not able to deceive the nations any longer. Christ broke down the walls that protected his kingdom and plundered it, bringing sinners who are his captives from darkness into light (Matt 12:29; Rev 20:2-3). True, Satan still prowls around like a lion seeking those whom he will devour (1 Pet 5:8), but whole nations are no longer under his slavery because he has been bound by Christ from doing so.
In Matthew 13:31-33, Jesus tells of two parables about how his kingdom will increase. First, it is like a very small mustard seed that becomes a huge plant. Second, it is like a little leaven that is active and permeates the whole world in hidden ways, beginning with the creation of new life in dead, sinful souls. Therefore, the kingdom of God, even with great and unceasing opposition from Satan, will increase and will be victorious when the kingdom comes in its fullness.
Praying for the Fullness of the Kingdom
The second thing we are praying for when we pray “Your kingdom come” is the coming of the kingdom of God in its fullness.
Jesus inaugurated his kingdom 2,000 years ago, and his kingdom has been expanding throughout the world ever since. After 72 of his disciples came back from many villages and towns preaching the gospel, they told Jesus, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” And he said to them, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven’” (Luke 10:17-18). This is what has been happening since Jesus first came. Satan’s power and authority has been decisively broken. The walls of his kingdom are crumbling as the church assaults it by the preaching of the gospel, “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16).
This is why we have this saying about the kingdom called “already-not yet.” The kingdom is already here with us, “in our midst,” when Christ started preaching his gospel of repentance and salvation. But it is also not yet in its fullness and glory. This is because from Genesis 3:15 all the way to his Second Coming, the kingdom of the Seed of the woman will always be at war against the seed of Satan, that ancient serpent. This war will only come to an end when Christ returns from heaven in power and great glory. We read in our text that “fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed” all of Sodom and Gomorrah” (Luke 17:30). This is a picture of the eternal lake of fire and sulfur that is the destination of Satan and his host (Rev 20:10). The Catechism speaks about “the works of the devil, every power that exalts itself against God, and all wicked devices formed against God’s Holy Word” that Christ will destroy and put to a final end at his return.
Today the devil continues his ancient war against the kingdom of heaven. He tempts us to disregard, twist and disobey the laws of God’s kingdom, the Holy Scriptures. He sends his false teachers and false prophets to the churches, so that in many churches all over the world, prosperity gospel rules. He sways evil leaders in many countries to enact laws against the church, and against the sound preaching of God’s Word. He blinds evil men to persecute and murder our brethren where Christians are a small minority. So we must pray unceasingly, “Your kingdom come,” in order that the devil and all his works will be hindered and finally destroyed.
This is why Paul said that we must enter the kingdom through many tribulations (Acts 14:22). John also said that he was exiled in Patmos on account of the kingdom, the word of God, and the testimony of Jesus (Rev 1:9). But John knows that all the sufferings of believers will finally come to an end when Christ returns in power and great glory to destroy the devil. When will this happen? Jesus tells us when, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matt 24:14). When the number of the elect citizens of his kingdom is complete, he will appear with lightning and all kinds of cosmic signs—“the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Matt 24:29)—that the Jews had always been looking for.
In our Old Testament reading, Daniel sees in a vision one like a Son of Man going up with the clouds of heaven to the Ancient of Days. This is a vision of the ascension of Christ into heaven, where he presents his accomplished work on the cross. Then in a sweeping panorama of redemptive history from his ascension to his return from heaven, he was given an “[everlasting] dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Dan 7:14).
On that last day, Christ will sit on his glorious throne and separate his own blessed sheep from the accursed wicked goats. He will then take us to his royal palace and give us a feast, fulfilling the parable that he told his disciples, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son” (Matt 22:2). We will joyfully hear his royal invitation, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt 25:34).” We will be fully blessed as we recline at the feasting table with him, and “eat bread in the kingdom of God!” (Luke 14:15) Then will his promise in Matthew 26:29—“I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom”—be fulfilled (Matt 26:29). The angels in heaven will declare to us, “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev 19:9). And with joy in our hearts, we will then sing,
“Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come” (Rev 19:6-7).
People of God, when Jesus came preaching the gospel, healing the sick, driving out Satan and his demons, raising the dead, and comforting the brokenhearted, he inaugurated the kingdom of God. Even in this age, you already have a foretaste of these blessings in Christ as you hear the gospel preached, are healed from sin, drive Satan away from tempting you, given eternal life, and your troubled souls comforted. But from that blessed day into all eternity in the age to come, what you have now as foretastes of heaven will come to complete fulfillment: no more tears, no more death, no more mourning, no more crying, no more pain, because God the Father and his Lamb will be with you forever (Rev 21:4).
So whenever you pray, “Your kingdom come,” be reminded that you are praying that Christ preserve and increase the church. You are praying that your faith be preserved and your soul be nourished by his Word and Spirit and sacraments. You are praying and longing for the soon return of Jesus your Savior as King of the Universe and finally put an end to sin, death and the devil: “Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus! Come soon!