The relationship between the kingdom of God and the church, in the words of Geerhardus Vos, is a “delicate and eminently practical question.”[i] In fact, different ecclesiologies have even arisen because of the various ways the church has construed this relationship.[ii] It has implications for the church’s identity and mission (to say the least), which makes it a question well worth wrestling with. Two prominent theologians who have done just this are Herman Ridderbos (1909–2007) and Geerhardus Vos (1862–1949).
Ridderbos and Vos wrote in a theological climate in which liberalism and exclusive (or over-realized) eschatology looked to reduce on opposite ends of the spectrum the wholesome picture the Scriptures provide regarding the relationship between the kingdom and the church in their present and future dimensions.[iii] Vos writes in his article, “The Kingdom of God,”
“Did [Jesus] mean by the kingdom a new state of things suddenly to be realized in external forms … or did He mean by it … a spiritual creation gradually realizing itself in invisible ways? For convenience sake these two conceptions may be distinguished as the eschatological and the spiritual-organic conception. … In modern writings both have in turn been pushed to an extreme in which they become exclusive of the other. The tendency at present … is to make [Jesus’] conception of the kingdom largely eschatological. On the other hand … the opposite tendency appears, viz., to eliminate as much as possible the eschatological elements and ascribe to Him the idea of a kingdom entirely spiritual and internal” (Shorter Writings, 307).
Likewise, Ridderbos observes,
“The liberal theology asserted that, as a visible gathering of believers with a certain amount of organization, the church lay entirely outside the field of Jesus’ vision. Jesus was only supposed to be the prophet of the “inner” religion. … According to [the eschatological] interpretation, it is quite out of the question that Jesus took account of an earthly development in which there would be room for the life of a church and for its organization” (The Coming of the Kingdom, 335–36).
While liberalism sought to remove all future aspects to form an exclusively internal heart religion making the organized church unnecessary, exclusive eschatology sought to relegate the kingdom only to the future without any present intrusion of it so that the church and kingdom are unrelated. In either case, the church lost its identity and mission. In liberalism, the church simply became a sociological phenomenon. In the exclusive eschatology camp, the church became the consequence of the failure of the kingdom to come.[iv] Jesus preached the kingdom, but what came instead was the church.[v]
Ridderbos and Vos sought to set forth mediating positions that properly took into account the present and future dimensions of the kingdom and church by setting them within an already-not yet paradigm. In a previous article we considered Ridderbos’ formulation, so now we turn to the slightly different approach of Vos, primarily found in his excellent book The Teaching of Jesus Concerning the Kingdom of God and the Church.
The Kingdom and the Church Defined
Vos writes, “The church is a form which the kingdom assumes in result of the new stage upon which the messiahship of Jesus enters with his death and resurrection.” Also, he states, “The church is that new congregation taking the place of the old congregation of Israel, which is formed by Jesus as the Messiah and stands under his Messianic rule.”[vi] This congregation could not begin until Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection were accomplished and he was subsequently exalted to the Father’s right hand as the Messiah (cf. Acts 2:36).
Vos, unlike Ridderbos, does not see the element of community as foreign to the definition of the kingdom. He writes, “The kingdom is indeed a community in which men are knit together by the closest of bonds, and especially in connection with our Lord’s teaching on the church this is brought out.”[vii] He clarifies though that the kingdom is not limited to this; in fact, he recognizes that this aspect of the kingdom receives little emphasis in Jesus’ teaching (cf. Matt. 13:24–30, 47–50). He goes as far to say that this aspect “is not ultimate because not the union of men as such, but that in God which produces and underlies it, is the true kingdom-forming principle.”[viii]
The kingdom exists not merely where “God is supreme, for that is true at all times and under all circumstances, but where God supernaturally carries through his supremacy against all opposing powers and brings man to the willing recognition of the same. It is a state of things in which everything converges and tends towards God as the highest good.” Within this sphere of the kingdom is divine power, divine righteousness, and divinely bestowed blessedness. The kingdom reveals itself as power “in the acts by which [it] is established,” as righteousness “in the moral order under which it exists,” and as blessedness “in the spiritual blessings, privileges and delights that are enjoyed in it.”[ix]
The Church and the Keys of the Kingdom in Matthew 16:18–19 and 18:17
Matthew 16:18, according to Vos, deals with the church “for the express purpose of introducing it as something new, of describing its character and defining its relation to the kingdom.” The occasion for this new revelation was Peter’s confession of Jesus being the Christ, which stood in stark contrast to the multitude who abandoned him. “It is this rock-character … that is praised by Jesus, that, when others wavered, he had remained true to his conviction.”[x]
The giving of the keys of the kingdom to Peter, “as the foundation of the church, and therefore to the church,” does not mean that he (or the church) “had been given the power in some way or other to open and shut the gates of the heavenly kingdom.” This interpretation would make the church the gatekeeper of the kingdom. “The binding and loosing do not refer to heaven itself, as if heaven were shut or opened, but refer to certain things lying within the sphere of heaven, and not of heaven alone but of earth likewise.” Vos argues that the keys are not to the outer door, but to the entire house. The church is not here referred to as a gatekeeper, but “the house-steward, and therefore symbolize the administration of the affairs of the house in general.”[xi]
From this relationship, Vos sees the kingdom of heaven “existing, in part at least, on earth.” The keys are of the kingdom of heaven, but they bind and loose on earth. So what Peter “does in the administration of the kingdom here below will be recognized in heaven.”[xii] Vos sees the two statements of Jesus (“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” [Matt. 16:18] and “I will give you [Peter] the keys of the kingdom of heaven” [Matt. 16:19]) as having the same referent or figure, namely, that of the house. He writes,
First the house is represented as in process of building, Peter as the foundation, then the same house appears completed and Peter as invested with the keys for administering its affairs. It is plainly excluded that the house should mean one thing in the first statement and another in the second. It must be possible, this much we may confidently affirm, to call the church the kingdom.[xiii]
This provides the exegetical ground from which he formulates the relationship between the kingdom and the church as being identical.
The Kingdom and the Church are Identical
Vos argues that Jesus’ view of the kingdom as an organism of men, a church, is found subtly in his earlier teaching. He maintains that “sayings like Matt. 20:25; Mark 9:35; Luke 20:25, at least suggest the idea of the kingdom as a society.” Jesus’ gathering of the disciples, according to Vos, is what the kingdom of God was always intended to be, namely, an aggregate of men. This is supported by the parables of the wheat and the chaff (Matt. 13:24–30, 36–43) and the fishnet (Matt. 13:47–50). “This ‘kingdom of the Son of man’ agrees with the ‘church of Jesus,’ in that both phrases make the kingdom a body of men placed under the Messiah as their ruler.” If such was always the intention of the kingdom, then the church, being external and visible, is clearly an advancement of it since it only previously had been internal and invisible. For this reason, Vos argues that the advance “must be sought in something else than the mere fact of its being a body of disciples.”
He puts forth two points concerning this. First, the Old Testament church that rejected the Messiah must be replaced and “therefore receive some form of external organization.”[xiv] Vos continues,
This [viz., external organization] the kingdom had not hitherto possessed. It had been internal and invisible not merely in its essence, but to this essence there had been lacking the outward embodiment. Jesus now in speaking of the house and the keys of the house, of binding and loosing on earth, and of church discipline, makes provision for this.[xv]
Second, Vos contends, “Our Lord gives to understand that the new stage upon which his Messiahship is now about to enter, will bring to the kingdom a new influx of supernatural power and this makes out of it, not only externally but also internally, that new thing which he calls his church.” Vos looks for support of this claim in Jesus’ words regarding the gates of Hades. He posits that the phrase should be translated: “the gates of Hades shall not surpass it.” He understands the gates of Hades as “a figure for the highest conceivable strength, because no one can break through them.”[xvi] So Jesus is saying that the church’s power will excel even that of the highest conceivable strength. For Vos the church’s strength is owing to its being built upon a rock. This new influx of power is also spoken of the kingdom (cf. Matt. 16:28; 26:64; Mark 9:1; 14:62; Luke 9:27; 22:69), hence the church and kingdom are identical.
The Son of Man Coming in His Kingdom (Matt. 16:27–28)
In fact, Jesus’ words to his disciples are emphatic about this: “The Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matt. 16:27–28). The imagery of angels and the glory of the Father denotes power. But in what sense will the kingdom be seen by Jesus’ disciples prior to their death? Vos believes “we can interpret these sayings of the coming of the kingdom in the church.” Jesus’ statement is so emphatic because the power of the Holy Spirit that was at work in the early church anticipates “in some respects the phenomena that will be observed at the end of the world. … The church actually has within herself the powers of the world to come. She is more than the immanent kingdom as it existed before Jesus’ exaltation. She forms an intermediate link between the present life and the life of eternity.”[xvii]
The above analysis leads to this conclusion: “The church is a form which the kingdom assumes in result of the new stage upon which the Messiahship of Jesus enters with his death and resurrection.” Vos takes it further saying, “Jesus plainly leads us to identify the invisible church and the kingdom.” He appeals to John 3:3–5, which explicitly teaches that to be born again is a requirement for anyone who would see or enter into the kingdom. “The kingdom, therefore, as truly as the invisible church is constituted by the regenerate; the regenerate alone experience in themselves its power, cultivate its righteousness, enjoy its blessings.”[xviii]
If the invisible church is equated with the kingdom, then what is the relationship between the visible church and the kingdom? Vos answers, “Our Lord looked upon the visible church as a veritable embodiment of his kingdom. Precisely because the invisible church realizes the kingship of God, the visible church must likewise partake of this character.” The keys of the kingdom bring some sort of visible manifestation to the kingdom. And Jesus by conferring this power acts in the capacity of King over the visible church. Vos further draws the identity of the visible church and the kingdom when he says, “In Matt. 13:41 the kingdom of the Son of Man … is nothing else but the visible church. The visible church is constituted by the enthronement of Christ as the King of glory.” The invisible forces of the kingdom that exist in the invisible sphere “find expression in the kingdom-organism of the visible church.”[xix] In the end, Vos identifies the kingdom with church since for him the church is the externally organized kingdom.
[i] Vos, Geerhardus, The Teaching of Jesus Concerning the Kingdom and the Church. PTR 2:335–336.
[ii] Cf. Morgan, Christopher W., and Robert A. Peterson, The Kingdom of God (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2012), 179.
[iii] For a brief discussion of these two positions Vos and Ridderbos are responding to see Millard Erickson, A Basic Guide to Eschatology, pp. 21–22.
[iv] Ridderbos adds, “The church is then supposed to owe its origin to the fact that those who had been waiting for the coming of the kingdom in vain had no other alternative in the continuation of history than, as Jesus’ disciples, to form an organization” (Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, 337).
[v] The implications of these two systems of thought are massive since the church in both cases becomes a mere human invention and severed from its relationship to the kingdom.
[vi] Vos, Geerhardus, The Teaching of Jesus Concerning the Kingdom of God and the Church, 79, 85–86.
[vii] The full quote: “We must reject as inadequate the favorite modern explanation that in the figure of the kingdom the point of comparison lies primarily in the mutual association of men so as to form a moral or religious organism. The kingdom is indeed a community in which men are knit together by the closest of bonds, and especially in connection with our Lord’s teaching on the church this is brought out. Taking, however, the kingdom-teaching as a whole this point is but little emphasized, Matt. 13:24–30, 47–50. Besides, this conception is not nearly wide enough to cover all the things predicated of the kingdom in the Gospel, according to which it appears to consist as much in gifts and powers from above as in inter-human relations and activities. Its resemblance to a community offers at least only a partial explanation of its kingdom-character, and so far as this explanation is correct it is not ultimate because not the union of men as such, but that in God which produces and underlies it, is the true kingdom-forming principle” (Vos, The Teaching of Jesus, 49). However, Vos defines the kingdom differently with respect to this community aspect in his review of Das Reich Gottes nach den synoptischen as “a gift of God (not a task, a goal, an ideal or a community); the attitude of man with reference to it is purely receptive, not productive; the kingdom is wrought by God; human activity comes into consideration only in so far as it conditions the reception or loss of the kingdom … the world receives the kingdom in so far as the latter steps forward out of its hidden state and by drawing the world into its sphere becomes manifest; God brings the kingdom, though in Christ, and Christ through the power of God, these two being synonymous” (Vos, Geerhardus, and James T. Dennison, The Letters of Geerhardus Vos, 54). It should be noted that this definition was written in 1900, while the Teaching of Jesus Concerning the Kingdom and the Church was published in 1903.
[viii] Vos, The Teaching of Jesus, 49
[ix] Ibid., 50, 52
[x] Ibid., 78
[xi] Ibid., 80–81
[xii] Ibid., 81
[xiv] Ibid., 82–83
[xv] Ibid., 83
[xvii] Ibid., 84
[xviii] Ibid., 85–86
[xix] Ibid., 87. Vos is sure to clarify the above conclusion noting that the church is not the only expression of the invisible kingdom. He writes, “Undoubtedly the kingship of God… is intended to pervade and control the whole of human life in all its forms of existence.” The kingdom, then, manifests itself in the various spheres of life (e.g., science; art; family; state; commerce; industry; etc.) when it comes under “the controlling influence of the principle of the divine supremacy and glory.” Jesus looked upon every province of human life as being intended to “form part of God’s kingdom,” though he did not see subjection to the visible church as the way it would be accomplished. For the kingdom to penetrate any sphere of life and manifest itself there, including in the church, the principle of regeneration must be there from which it supernaturally empowers it. “While it is proper to separate between the visible church and such things as the Christian state, Christian art, Christian science, etc., these things, if they truly belong to the kingdom of God, grow up out of the regenerated life of the invisible church” (Vos, The Teaching of Jesus, 87–89).