The complexity revolving around the question of the relationship between the kingdom and the church is largely due to varying definitions. So before setting forth Herman Ridderbos’ formulation in his magisterial work on the gospels, The Coming of the Kingdom, we’ll first consider his definition of the church and the kingdom.
The Church Defined
Ridderbos succinctly defines the church (Gk. ekklesia) as “the name of those who have been united into one community by the preaching of the gospel.”[i] In other words, the church is the people of God who have been called out to a single assembly by means of the Word and Spirit. Although Jesus does not use the term “church” often (cf. Matt. 16:18; 18:17), the idea of the church, according to Ridderbos, is “a very essential element in the scope of Jesus’ preaching and self-revelation.”[ii] This raises the question: where did this idea of the church in Jesus’ teaching originate from?
Scholars have appealed to the Son of Man’s symbolic representation of “the people of the saints of the Most High” in Daniel 7[iii] and “the remnant” of the people of Israel (cf. Isa. 10:22ff). But Ridderbos (though not necessarily rejecting these connections) sees them as superfluous starting points for the origination of the idea in Jesus’ teaching.[iv] Instead, he argues, “The idea of God’s people has a much more general foundation in Jesus’ messianic preaching of the basileia [kingdom]. … [It] occupies a much more central place in it than can be made plausible on the ground of such special connections.”[v]
He goes on to provide three grounds that he finds more suitable on which to build the idea of the church.
First, there is “the a priori messianic viewpoint.” The Messiah must have a people, “a kingdom-of-God-community.” He must act for, answer to and be united with a people—a people whom he will confess before his Father (Matt 10:32–33), whom he calls his brothers (12:50; 25:40) and who are children of the messianic bridegroom (9:15). It is for this reason Jesus says, “my church” (Matt. 16:18)—“it is the ‘my’ of the Messiah speaking of the people to whom he has given his grace and whom he rules.”[vi] The fact that the kingdom has come, means that this people is not a purely eschatological entity, but a present reality that is being gathered even today (cf. Matt. 10:34–38; 12:30; Mark 9:40; Luke 9:50; 11:23; 12:51–53).
Second, Israel’s rejection of the Messiah warrants “the concomitant new formation of God’s people”—something that “has already begun to be realized with the coming of Jesus.” The rejection of Israel as the people of God is seen in the parable of the wicked tenants (Matt. 21:33–44; cf. Isa. 5:2). Israel’s own rejection of Jesus as the Messiah catalyzes the ripping of the kingdom from their possession and the giving of the kingdom to “a people producing its fruits” (Matt. 25:43). “By this ‘people’ is… [meant] the new people of God to whom, in passing over the old Israel, he will give the salvation of the kingdom.” Ridderbos recognizes that here the two concepts—the kingdom of God and the gathering of a new people of God by the Messiah—are apparent. “The revelation of the kingdom is directed to the formation of a people that will replace Israel in the history of salvation.”[vii] This finds further support in the fact that Jesus gathers twelve disciples to form the nucleus or foundation of the new Israel, the new people of God. The point Ridderbos seeks to make here is that Jesus’ messianic mission was, in fact, directed and determined by this idea of forming the new people of God, his church.
Third, the idea of the church arises from “the basic motif of the covenant and of the people of God.” This is found in the definition of ekklesia as “the gathering together of the people of the divine covenant.”[viii] These people who belong to the Covenant Lord are the people of the Messiah and vice-versa.
These three observations lead Ridderbos to define the church as
the community of those who, as the true people of God, receive the gifts of the kingdom of heaven provisionally now already since the Messiah has come, and one day in the state of perfection at the parousia of the Son of Man.” In other words, “the ekklesia is the people elected and called by God and sharing in the bliss of the basileia.[ix]
The Kingdom Defined
The kingdom is defined by Ridderbos as “the revelation of God’s glory (Matt. 16:27; 24:30; Mark 8:38; 13:26, etc.).” Ridderbos notes that basileia can be translated as “kingdom,” “kingship,” and “kingly dominion.” The spatial interpretation is to be seen as secondary to the kingly dominion sense. From here Ridderbos argues that the kingdom of God has a “personal connotation” for it is “the coming of God himself as king.” He appeals to the parables of the kingdom for support since a personal character always stands at the center of them, not some static, impersonal force (cf. Matt. 13:24ff; 18:23ff; 20:1ff; 21:33ff; 22:1ff; 25:14ff). This is consistent with the Old Testament conception of the coming of the kingdom as a coming of a person, generally conceived of as the Messiah.[x] Nevertheless, dominion must create or maintain a territory where it can operate, which makes “kingdom” a legitimate translation of basileia. Therefore, the coming of the kingdom has both a spatial (a territory) and an ethical (a power of dominion) connotation.
In Jesus’ coming, the kingdom is revealed as (1) a power seen in Jesus’ miracles and ruination of Satan’s reign that brings judgment, salvation, and restoration to the created order, (2) a message of salvation that is preached to the poor in spirit, and (3) a gift that the people of God, the church, may delight in. In summary, “the basileia is the great divine work of salvation in its fulfillment and consummation in Christ.”[xi]
The question that now presents itself to us is: How does the church, the people elected and called by God, relate to the kingdom, the great divine work of salvation?
The Kingdom and the Church are Complementary
Ridderbos strongly stresses that the kingdom is not to be identified with the church. He writes, “The concept basileia nowhere occurs in the sense of this idea of the ekklesia … [nor is it] used in the sense that the kingdom of God in its provisional manifestation on earth would be embodied in the form and organization of the church.”[xii]
However, the kingdom parables (e.g., Matt. 13), which keep the gospel central, seem to suggest the coming of the church. Calvin even tried to apply some of them to the church (e.g., the wheat and tares and the fishing net). The issue that is often at hand when these parables are taken up is the “mingling of the wicked and the good in the church.” This application is still widely popular in contemporary interpretation of the parables. However, Ridderbos rejects such un-nuanced application since “the field in which the wicked and good are growing up in together is the world,” not the church. The parables are much more broad, encompassing “the universal work of the divine salvation.” To limit them to the church is to unduly narrow them. This does not necessarily have to exclude the church, for, as Ridderbos comments, “this progress includes the salvation of all those who will inherit the kingdom.”[xiii]
For Ridderbos, then, the relationship between the kingdom and the church is clear with regard to their connections and differences:
The basileia is the great divine work of salvation in its fulfillment and consummation in Christ; the ekklesia is the people elected and called by God and sharing in the bliss of the basileia. Logically, the basileia ranks first, and not the ekklesia. The former, therefore, has a much more comprehensive content. It [the kingdom] represents the all-embracing perspective, it denotes the consummation of all history, brings both grace and judgment, has cosmic dimensions, fills time and eternity. The ekklesia in all this is the people who in this great drama have been placed on the side of God in Christ by virtue of the divine election and covenant. They have been given the divine promise, have been brought to manifestation and gathered together by the preaching of the gospel, and will inherit the redemption of the kingdom now and in the great future.[xiv]
In Jesus’ coming, the kingdom is revealed as a power, message, and gift. The church, then, reveals the kingdom “in its redeeming and saving significance, in all the gifts and treasures promised and granted now already in and through Christ.” The church is “as far as humanity is concerned… the soteriological goal” of the kingdom. The salvation that the kingdom is bringing is universal and cosmic, restoring all of creation as far as curse is found, “in which the church is herself included.”[xv] That is to say, the church does not reveal the kingdom comprehensively, only in part—the kingdom is far more encompassing than the church.
The church and the kingdom do not oppose one another, as if only one can exist, but neither are they to be construed as identical. The salvation that the kingdom brings “bears both a messianic and a historical character.” The Messiah must have a people and since the kingdom is already being realized in history, the church takes on a present, historical nature. “The ekklesia is the fruit of the revelation of the basileia; and conversely, the basileia is inconceivable without the ekklesia. The one is inseparable from the other without, however, the one merging into the other.”[xvi] The kingdom has a universal scope in which the church shares but which she never encompasses. The church is the fruit of the kingdom, not the kingdom itself. Raymond Zorn, in his helpful book, Christ Triumphant: Biblical Perspectives on his Church and Kingdom, writes in agreement with Ridderbos, “The church is to be found within the kingdom but is not co-extensive with it.”[xvii]
Ridderbos’ formulation of the church from the viewpoint of the kingdom leads to three conclusions. First, the church is the community that awaits the full salvation of the kingdom. Second, it is the place where “the gifts and powers of the [kingdom] are granted and received.” Third, it is the instrument of the kingdom as she professes Jesus as the Christ, obeys his commandments, and fulfills the Great Commission by preaching the gospel to the ends of the earth. “In every respect,” then, “the church is surrounded and impelled by the revelation, the progress, the future of the kingdom of God without, however, itself being the basileia, and without ever being identified with it.”[xviii]
[i] Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, 343.
[ii] Ibid., 347.
[iii] G.K. Beale argues that “the Son of Man is both an individual and also a representative for a community” (A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2011], 394ff). Also, in the book of Revelation the saints of the Most High, i.e., the church, shares the authority and dominion of the Lamb (1:6, 9; 2:26–27; 3:21; 5:9–10), which seems to be consistent with Daniel 7.
[iv] cf. Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, 347–348.
[v] Ibid. 348
[vii] Ibid., 351–53
[viii] Ibid., 354
[x] Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, 24–27.
[xi] Ibid., 354
[xii] Ibid., 343
[xiii] Ibid., 344–47
[xiv] Ibid., 354–55
[xv] Ibid., 355
[xvii] Raymond O. Zorn, Christ Triumphant: Biblical Perspectives on His Church and Kingdom, 71
[xviii] Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, 356