“What’s the number one thing that Jesus talked about throughout his life?”—the preacher shouted in that classic you-should-know-this tone. Lucky for me, I was sure that I did know the answer. After all, I had grown up in the church hearing every week about what was central to all of Christianity: the cross of Christ. As the preacher allowed a few seconds of silence to let the guilt build up for those who didn’t know the answer, I smirked and prepared to mouth the words along with him. “The number one thing Jesus talked about was”—and then he said something that nearly knocked me off my pew—“the kingdom of God!”
What!? The kingdom of God? What about the cross? At that moment it was as if Conviction walked into the room and slapped me in the face; and then his friend Crisis came and sat next to me for an extended talk. How could the kingdom be the thing that Jesus talked about the most, and yet it had no place in my theology, church life, or my perception of what it means to be a Christian? That day was the beginning of a journey for me, in seeking to understand why two of the most important themes in Scripture—the kingdom and the cross—have been divorced in much of Christian belief and practice.
Kingdom or the Cross?
Many Christians either cling to the cross or champion the kingdom, usually one to the exclusion of the other. The polarization of these two biblical themes leads to divergent approaches: cross-centered theology that focuses on the salvation of sinners or kingdom-minded activism that seeks to change the world.
How did the church get to this unfortunate place of pitting important biblical doctrines against one another? The social gospel movement of the 20th century shined so much light on the kingdom of God that it nearly eclipsed the cross. H. Richard Niebuhr’s assessment of this theology is fitting: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Conservatives reacted sharply by reclaiming the centrality of the cross, but often relegating the kingdom solely to the future or ignoring it altogether, thereby setting in place the defining feature of the history of this discussion: pendulum-swinging reductionism.
The fact that two of the primary themes in Scripture have been torn apart and often turned against each other poses an enormous problem. Surely one should not have to choose between the kingdom and the cross. Is there a way forward?
Story of a Crucified Messiah
The kingdom and the cross ultimately are held together by the Christ, the one who reigns over the kingdom and suffers on the cross. But Jesus is no generic superhero; he is the Messiah, the promised one of the unfolding story of a gracious God who has covenanted with Israel to restore his broken creation. This grand story of redemption provides the proper framework for understanding the connection between the kingdom and the cross.
The story begins in a garden, and although the phrase “kingdom of God” does not come until later, the concept of the kingdom of God has its roots in the soil of Eden. Genesis 1-2 portrays God as a loving king who rules over his good creation through his image-bearing people. Contrary to popular opinion, however, Adam and Eve were not placed in the garden for eternal vacation. Far from sleeping in and frolicking in the garden, Adam and Eve were given a task to care for the garden and to extend the blessings that come from the reign of God in Eden throughout the entire world (Gen 1:26). This vision—God’s rule over all the earth through his people—was the original aim of the kingdom of God.
Adam and Eve, however, rather than ruling over the earth, submit to the rule of one of its craftiest creatures—the serpent—thereby fracturing the covenant relationship with God and collapsing the project aimed at God’s reign over all the earth. Rather than going forth from Eden to expand the blessing of God’s royal presence, they are banished from the garden to a wandering existence that instead spreads the curse.
From the cursed dirt of Genesis 3, redemptive history sprouts forth with the promise of the “seed” of a woman who will crush the head of the serpent and suffer a bruised heel in the process (Gen. 3:15). The victory of the seed will overcome the sin-induced curse, reconcile God and his people, and realize God’s original purpose of establishing his reign over all the earth. God does not abandon his kingdom project, but he points the way to a different route to this goal. Genesis 3:15 provides the key, for the promise of victory now includes the price of suffering. Henceforth, a pattern emerges in the story of Adam and Israel whereby victory comes through suffering, exaltation through humiliation, and ultimately, kingdom through the cross.
The story unfolds in the Old Testament as God administers his kingdom through a series of covenants and foreshadows its realization by saving his people and judging his enemies time and time again. God promises to reverse the curse through Abraham and ensures his royal faithfulness with a covenant sealed by sacrifice. In the exodus, God redeems his people from slavery and for his kingdom—and at the heart of this redemption is a sacrificial lamb. David overcomes an evil giant through humble means, and his royalty is characterized by righteous suffering. The prophet Isaiah explicitly reveals how the victory of the kingdom hinges on the suffering of a servant.
The New Testament presents the startling paradox of Jesus proclaiming the kingdom of God throughout his life and then dying a criminal’s death on the cross. Did Jesus’ kingdom mission fail at the cross? Was the cross an obstacle to be overcome in order to bring the kingdom? In John’s account of the life of Christ, everything moves toward the climactic “hour” when Jesus, being “lifted up” on the cross, is truly being enthroned in glory (John 12:23–32; cf. 3:14, 8:28). The cross becomes not only the center of redemptive history but also the fulcrum upon which the logic of the world is turned upside down. Shame is transformed into glory, foolishness into wisdom, and humiliation into exaltation. The cross becomes the throne from which Christ rules the world.
The cross becomes not only the center of redemptive history, but also the fulcrum upon which the logic of the world is turned upside down.
According to Paul, Christ dethrones Satan through the cross and thereby establishes God’s kingdom (Col 2:15; 1:13-14). The “big picture” of the kingdom and the cross can be seen in Hebrews 2:5-10, presenting Jesus as a last Adam who has restored God’s royal design for creation and regained the “crown of glory and honor” for humanity through his death on the cross. Revelation explicitly says that king Jesus “has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom” (Rev 1:5–6).
In sum, from the bruised heel of Genesis 3:15 to the reigning lamb of Revelation 22:1, the Bible is a redemptive story of a crucified messiah who brings the kingdom through his atoning death on the cross.
How, then, can we summarize the relationship between the kingdom and the cross? While many Christians either champion the kingdom or cling to the cross, Scripture presents a mutually enriching relationship between the two that draws significantly from the story of Israel and culminates in the crucifixion of Christ the king. The story of redemption reveals that the promises of the kingdom (for example, victory over enemies, forgiveness of sin, new exodus) find their fulfillment primarily in the cross of Christ. Furthermore, kingdom and cross need not vie for position in the story of redemption because they play different roles. The cross is central (the climactic mid-point of the story) and the kingdom is telic (the end-goal of the story). The glory of God’s wisdom, however, is displayed in the manner that the end-time kingdom has broken into the middle of history through the death of the messiah.
In short, the kingdom and the cross are held together by the Christ—Israel’s messiah—who brings God’s reign on earth through his atoning death on the cross. The kingdom is the ultimate goal of the cross, and the cross is the means by which the kingdom comes. Jesus’ death is neither the failure of his messianic ministry nor simply the prelude to his royal glory, but the apex of his kingdom mission; the cross is the throne from which Jesus rules and establishes his kingdom. The shocking paradox of God’s reign through Christ crucified certainly appears foolish to fallen human logic; however, perceived through faith, it is the very power and wisdom of God.
The kingdom is the ultimate goal of the cross, and the cross is the means by which the kingdom comes.
The kingdom of God is established on earth by Christ’s atoning death on the cross. The word establish signals that Christ’s atoning death is the decisive moment, though certainly not the only significant moment. God’s kingdom was present in Jesus’ life, proclaimed in his preaching, glimpsed in his miracles/exorcisms, established by his death, and inaugurated through the resurrection. It is being advanced by the Holy Spirit through the church, and will be consummated in Christ’s return.
The cross creates a community of ransomed people living under the reign of God.
How, then, does this kingdom-cross interplay affect Christians today? First, inasmuch as God’s kingdom is founded and forever shaped by the cross of Christ, it is truly a cruciform kingdom. The resurrected Jesus still bears the scars of the cross and rules from the throne as the lamb who was slain. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “A king who dies on the cross must be the king of a rather strange kingdom.” A strange kingdom indeed; for while the kingdoms of this world are built by force, the kingdom of God is founded on grace.
Second, just as God established his kingdom through the humble means of Christ’s cross, so does he advance his kingdom through Christians who have been united to the resurrected Christ and who by the power of his Spirit are being conformed to the cross. Christians have been swept into the kingdom story, but we do not build the kingdom for God, we receive it from God (Heb. 11:28). The kingdom of God is not the culmination of human potential and effort but the intervention of God’s royal grace into a sinful and broken world. Our calling is to witness to the kingdom of God, and we do so by taking up our crosses. What’s true for Christ is true for Christian: greatness in the kingdom is characterized by service and sacrifice.
Third, to be a Christian means that we are not only forgiven through the cross but we are made followers of the king. We are saved from sin and the kingdom of darkness, but we are saved for Jesus and his kingdom of light. The self-giving love of God displayed in the cross creates a people who lovingly give of themselves for the well-being of others. The kingdom of God is marked by justice, and those who have been justified before God have more reason than any to seek justice for the weak, the poor, and the oppressed.
While the title on Christ’s cross—“The King of the Jews”—makes explicit the connection between the kingdom and the cross, perhaps the crown of thorns provides the best image for explaining how they relate. The thorns, which were a sign of the curse and defeat of Adam, truly symbolize the paradoxical synthesis of Christ’s sovereign rule and his sin-bearing sacrifice. The twisted thorns picture how atonement and kingdom are interwoven throughout the grand story of redemption as the goal of history and the means by which it is achieved. The kingdom comes in power, but the power of the gospel is Christ crucified.