What did Isaiah have in mind when he wrote about the Lord as King? Sometimes he writes about a future king from the royal line of David: "His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this" (Isaiah 9:7; see 11:1-5; 16:5; 22:22).
But Isaiah also pictures the Lord as the supreme King of the world. He is sovereign. He has the power to assign wrath consequences that are not within the power of earthly rulers. "The Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, will send wasting sickness among his stout warriors" (Isaiah 10:16; see 10:33; 51:22). In the modern song "Majesty," we praise the glory of his reign in the world. Or as Isaiah said, "They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God" (Isaiah 35:2). Similarly in the Psalms, "O Lord our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth" (Psalm 8:1).
Isaiah already knew that the reign of the Lord as King is founded upon his love. "Then a throne shall be established in steadfast love in the tent of David and on it shall sit in faithfulness a ruler who seeks justice and is swift to do what is right" (Isaiah 16:5). This suggests, as we saw in chapter 3, that our heavenly King's wrath is a subsection of the love of God. "In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you" (Isaiah 54:8). "The earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord" (Psalm 33:5, 8; see 36:5, 7, 10; 40:10; in Psalm 136 the word "steadfast love" comes in each of the 26 verses).
People have always been interested in how love and wrath are at work in our world. "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths" (Isaiah 2:3). In other words, they are curious about the principles of the Kingdom of God (also called the Kingdom of Heaven).
What then is this Kingdom? The eternal Son of God is the appointed King. He was already reigning and intervening in the Old Testament period before he took birth and lived and died and rose again in our world. As he began to gather his disciples he preached the good news of the kingdom, and said "the kingdom of heaven has come near" (Matthew 4:17; 10:17) and "the kingdom of God is among you" (Luke 17:21).
The Sermon on the Mount is the manifesto of that Kingdom. Jesus makes clear that the laws current among the Jewish people were not what he had in mind. Concerning five different kinds of legal tradition he announced his "But I say unto you" (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 33-34, 38-39, 43-44; see 20:24-28). He also had a quite different approach to religious practices such as giving alms, praying, and fasting (Matthew 6:1-6). The law must be interpreted in the light of God's love, not in a legalistic and judgmental kind of way.
But, as we have seen in previous chapters, the Lord is not just Lord of the Jewish people. We can therefore assume that the Lord of all nations also says "But I say unto you" concerning every item of the legal system of every tribe and people. That is why our missionary task is not limited to evangelism in the narrow sense. Part of the great commission (Matthew 28:19, 20) is to help people of each nation to work out how their laws and culture and presuppositions need to be corrected according to the "But I say unto you" sayings of the Sermon on the Mount.
Teaching and preaching the good news of the Kingdom is a familiar idea among Christians. But in addition to teaching we can distinguish two quite different manifestations of the King's reign in our world. In the first four chapters we tried to understand the words Day of the Lord, Coming, Judge, and Wrath to describe the special interventions of the Son of God. But in any kingdom the normal life of the citizens continues most of the time without special interventions. Similarly in the Kingdom of heaven the day to day work of the Church mostly goes on unnoticed. Like leaven, it permeates and powerfully transforms a country: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened" (Matthew 13:33).
Introducing the yeast of the Kingdom is also an intervention of our King. He comes and plants and builds his church in every nation. And within a generation social change begins to occur. Only a small proportion of the population become functioning Christians, but that is sufficient for the leaven of the love of God to do its work.
This happened among each of the tribes which eventually became the nations of Europe. Bishop J.W. Pickett described the process in Christian Mass Movements in India (1953). It has transformed African countries like Kenya and Uganda. One can go and observe the influence of churches in Borneo, Sumatra, New Guinea, among the Nagas and Lushais of the Assam border, and more recently in Nepal. People may still behave abominably, as they do in North America, but at least in theory they think the conduct of others should be loving and the government should respect human rights.
Admittedly this leavening work of the Church is hardly reported in the newspapers, unless some juicy scandal is uncovered. And evangelists often suggest that personal saving faith is all that matters, but it seems evident that throughout the Bible the Sovereign Lord is concerned with a far wider meaning of salvation and liberation.
The powerful leaven that the Lord introduces is by planting a church in each town or city. We can see this process occurring in the Book of Acts through the work of the apostle Paul: "From Jerusalem and as far around as Illyricum I have fully proclaimed the good news of Jesus Christ" (Romans 15:19). That was a distance of fifteen hundred miles. But this astonishing claim does not mean he had spoken about Christ to every single person in that vast area. What he had done was plant churches in the main centers of Cyprus and Crete, all across present day Turkey, Greece, and up into present day Croatia. When he wrote to the Church in Rome, he looked forward to doing the same in Spain.
There was only one church in each city, but in a big center like Ephesus Christians might be meeting in a dozen different locations (see Romans 16:3-16, which looks like an appendix to the Ephesian church added to a copy of the letter to the Romans. See also the article "One Church City" on this web site).
How do these churches function when they are freed to do their work by the power of the Holy Spirit?
Again the image of kingship helps us learn the language we need to understand the ordinary day to day work of Christians under their King. Earthly kings reign in a kingdom. They have a royal family, subjects and enemies. They are served by soldiers, servants and priests.
All the cultures from which we have written documents in the ancient world had priests to teach and make visible in worship what they thought God had in mind for them. At various times the priesthoods of Sumeria, Babylonia, Crete, Persia, India, China, and Israel became self-serving and oppressive, but their very existence suggests that at their best they served an important function (see the article "Royal Priesthood" on this site).
In some cases the king functioned as the high priest of his royal priesthood. At the time of Abraham there was a royal priesthood in the Jebusite city that later became Jerusalem: "King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High" (Genesis 14:18). The Epistle to the Hebrews refers to the priesthood of Melchizedek to illustrate the new Christian royal priesthood under their ascended High Priest and King (Hebrews 5-8).
This is why Peter, first leader of the Christian churches, wrote "You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, God's own people" (1 Peter 2:9). It is significant that Peter is quoting verbatim from God's first constitution for the Israelites who had just come out of Egypt in the Exodus "You shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6). They were meant to be a priestly nation to serve all other nations.
In the first chapter of Isaiah the corruption of the priestly sacrificial worship of that time is exposed (Isaiah 1:11-13; see 28:7). But there will come a time when "you shall be called priests of the Lord, you shall be named ministers of our God" (Isaiah 61:6). And in the last chapter people of all nations will become priests of the Kingdom: "And I will also take some of them as priests and as Levites, say the Lord" (Isaiah 66:21).
It is easy to see what ordinary people expect from their priests. Ceremonial is needed on the family occasions of birth, marriage, sickness, and death. When his mother dies, even an atheist does not say "put the body in a bag and take it to the dump." There are also community ceremonials for coronations, disaster situations, and celebrations of various kinds. Even a secular republic like the United States of America calls the Reverend Billy Graham to pray at state occasions.
Individuals also appreciate a priest who can listen to their story with deep attention in a totally non-judgmental way. Having heard the worst, the priest must be able to offer the assurance of absolution from God. A good priest will then be able to pick up the heart concerns expressed by the individual, and put them into words as a prayer to God. Usually some wise teaching is needed as to how to proceed. And finally the priest must be able to bless by assuring the person that all is well because God knows and cares.
After the of Day Pentecost communities of the Spirit began serving him as his royal priesthood in each city. This means that Christians are to be the priests of the Kingdom of Heaven to serve the people among whom they live. In that sense the work of the King of the Kingdom of Heaven goes on day by day in a million places throughout the world.
As in the Old Testament, Christian priesthood was quickly corrupted. After his conversion, the emperor Constantine made priests and bishops part of the administration of his empire. In due course the Roman Catholic popes called themselves Pontifex Maximus (chief priest) and managed to set up a hierarchy of bishops and priests to control what went on in every parish. This was opposed by a succession of movements that tried to recover the idea of the priesthood of every Christian under their King.
Beginning with the Pentecostal groups from about 1905, and then the charismatic movement in the major denominations, this has been called the century of the Holy Spirit. The worldwide Church has begun to recover the model of a local church functioning as a body with a large variety of members performing different functions (This kind of charismatic local church life was set out in Robert Brow, The Church: An Organic Picture of its Life and Mission [Eerdmans, 1968], now on this website).
If the church is viewed as an organic body with a large variety of charismata or gifts (as in Romans 12:3-13; 1 Corinthians 12:4-31; Ephesians 4:1-16), it is obviously impossible to divide the body into male and female functions. The priesthood of all believers means that all Christian women and men can function as priests in the Kingdom of Heaven and be part of our King's royal priesthood in every city and town.
We are called royal because we are members of the royal family of our reigning King. And we are priests because we serve by being there in every sad and every joyful situation. The Epistle to the Hebrews makes clear that there can only be one High Priest in the Kingdom (Hebrews 4:14-16; 8:1-4; 9:6-10), but he needs millions of priests all over the world to assure neighbours in their community of God's loving acceptance. Without that, how can ordinary people find someone to listen to their stories, receive personal absolution, have prayers offered for their personal needs, get the Word of God explained in relation to their own situation, and know that God loves them as they are and intends to bless them? We listen, and care, and pray, and work in a multitude of different ways as a loving team. This is exactly the picture of a local church that Paul wanted for the city of Rome (Romans 12:4-13).
We have spent most of this chapter clarifying the day to day work of our King's royal priesthood in every place. That is also an intervention of the Lord. But it is quite different from the mighty comings or interventions from time to time in the days of the Lord we have described in the first four chapters.
This means that in addition to planting his royal priesthood in every place, the Lord also has to intervene when necessary in the historical situation.. There are countries in which a ruthless dictator has taken away all freedom. Often the churches of the Kingdom have been trampled down by enemies. At other times the King needs to come and correct his churches (see Revelation chapter 2). He may even decide to remove their candlestick (Revelation 2:5, 16, 22; 3:3, 9, 11, 19).
At each coming of the Lord he will assign wrath for some, but at the same time he opens up new freedom and opportunities for others (see chapter 2). The problem is that many Christians are so obsessed with the coming of the Lord in judgment that they forget the importance for the Kingdom God of their ordinary work in the communities of the Spirit which function as the body of Christ in each city and surrounding area. Others are so burdened with the tough work of their royal priesthood and the opposition of its enemies that they forget to look to the Lord's coming intervention in judgment. We have shown how the early Christians looked for the coming of their Lord which took place in their generation in AD 70. But they also engaged lovingly in their royal priesthood.
Faith is knowing and serving that King. Unbelief is living as if the world was floundering along the brink of disaster.
But it is important to remind ourselves of the original intention. "Let us make humankind in our image" (Genesis 1:26). All the work of the Kingdom, both in the ordinary life of churches and in direct interventions of the Lord, is with a view to "bringing many children to glory" (Hebrews 2:10; John 1:12). And that involves perfecting them in love (Matthew 5:48; John 13:34-35; 17:26; 1 John 4:18).
Most important of all, as we have seen in the previous chapter, the only persons who are excluded are those who exclude themselves by loving the darkness away from the love of God (John 3:19).