It was natural that the Christian Church, brought into such close communion with the risen Lord, should have early begun to believe that He had already entered upon His work of rule as the Messianic King, and had called it to be ruler under Hun. Since all authority in heaven and earth was given Him, and He was set at His Father's right hand "above all principality, power, might, and dominion," was He not in the fullest sense a King? Why was it necessary that He should come back to the earth to reign? As the Church was to be gathered from all nations, including the Jews, did it not show that this people had fulfilled its mission, and had no national place in the Messianic Kingdom? Why could He not reign from heaven through the Church, guided and inspired by the Spirit whom He had sent down?
Thus reasoning from the unquestioned facts, that the Risen One is Lord over all nations, and that the gospel is to be preached to all, and that the Church is His body through which He would execute His will; the conclusion was near at hand that He was seated at His ascension on the throne of His glory, and then began His reign; and had called the Church to be the administrator of His authority on the earth during His absence. This conclusion was early formulated in the phrase, "the Church is the kingdom." All the promises of God in the Old Testament respecting the Messianic Kingdom, it was said, were to be fulfilled in it, and before the Lord's return. All the nations were to be subject to the Church, all the saved were to be gathered into it; and it only remained that at His return He should assign to all men their final rewards, and give up the Kingdom to His Father.
This belief respecting the high place and authority of the Church, involving the denial that the Jews as a people had any place in it, early found a ready reception in the congregations gathered from the Gentiles. They had little knowledge of the Jews, except as those who had rejected and crucified their Lord; and who still as a people hated and despised all who believed on Him. And as the repulsions between the Jews and Christians increased, and the Gentile element became predominant in the Church, this mode of thinking and feeling prevailed more and more. It contrasted its own uersalism with the particularism of the Jewish people, its spiritual worship with their carnal ritual, its heavenly riches through its union with Christ and the presence of the Holy Ghost, with their poverty of knowledge and of gifts; and it asked, Will God go backward? Having reached a higher stage of His work, will He descend again to a lower? Why should the unfaithful nation be regathered and set anew in its land? Why should the Lord of all humble Himself to be the King of the Jews?
It was in vain that the Jews appealed to the promises made to their fathers, and to the declarations of the prophets respecting their place in the Messianic Kingdom as the children of Abraham and the covenant nation. It was not difficult to give to these promises another interpretation. It was said, that the true descendants of Abraham and heirs of the promises were those who received the Messiah when He came; and that the prophecies of future blessedness and honor under His rule belonged to them, and to all who believed His gospel, and not to the literal Jews. The nation as such had forfeited its right, and had no further place in the redemptive purpose of God. All that Joel and Isaiah and other prophets had said of a remnant to be saved, was to be fulfilled in those who entered the Church. As a people, the Jews were henceforth to Jehovah as one of the Gentile nations; they were to be saved individually through the gospel, not as a nation. The Old-Testament prophecies of the extension of the Kingdom and its glory, should have their fulfillment in the new election, made up both of Jews and Gentiles. Thus, it became in time the general, almost the uersal, belief of Christians, that the Church is the Kingdom; and that all that is said in Old-Testament prophecy of the reign of the Messiah is fulfilled in it during His absence in heaven; and this belief continues to be very general to this day. Its effect has been very great in determining the history of the Church, both as to doctrine and polity; and it therefore demands our consideration.
There are certain elements here to be carefully distinguished; and, first, we ask in what sense Christ now rules in the Church, and in what sense He now rules over the nations? At His ascension, the Lord as glorified became the perfect instrument for the completion of the Father's purpose in man's redemption, and was clothed with all His authority. But redemption was still to be carried on, as we have seen, by means of an election; and it is the new election — the Church —that is the sphere in which He now exercises in full measure His authority. But it is as its Head that He rules over it, not as its King; for this latter title is never used of this relation. Nor is His rule over His Church legal and externa], like that of an earthly king; or even like that of Jehovah over the Jews. The relation between Him, the Head, and the Church, His Body, is a living one, such as nowhere else exists, or can exist; His will is the law, not merely of its action, but of its life. Its members "are under the law to Christ," because they are first in Him. The Spirit whom He has sent and by whom He regenerates and purines, works in them such discernment of His will that His commandments approve themselves to their spirits as just and holy and good, and they joyfully obey them. Thus it is that as the Head He rules in the Church through the law of a common life; and where this community of life is full, obedience is perfect.
We ask second, in what sense He now rules over the nations? Here we must distinguish between His immediate and His providential rule. As Jehovah was absolute ruler alway over all nations, and yet was not. the theocratic King of any till the election of Israel, so the Lord Jesus became the "Prince of the kings of the earth " at His ascension, but does not yet stand in immediate kingly relations to any one people. His investiture with uersal authority does not involve the instant possession and exercise of it. "I have set my King upon my holy hill of Zion. . . . Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance." (Ps. ii. 6-9.) "Sit on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool." (Ps. ex.) "Thou hast put all things in subjection under His feet. . . . But now we see not yet all things put under Him." (Heb. ii. 8.) The kingly relation is a new and definite one, to be made by God's special act. As the sphere of Jehovah's theocratic action was the Jewish election, so that of Christ now is the Christian election. Provi
dentially He reigns over all nations, executing the Father's will, raising up and casting down kings and magistrates that He may prepare the way for the uersal Kingdom, which He is in due time to set up. But His actings are not seen as His except by the eye of faith. He reigns, but He is invisible, and the world at large knows it not; the nations pay Him no conscious obedience.
Thus, headship over the Church, and lordship over the nations, as established at the ascension, are two distinct and very unlike relations. In the one, His authority is immediate, and extends to all offices, to all ordinances, to all worship; no one can lawfully rule or teach, or fulfill any ministry in His Church, to whom He does not give commission. The body, if in its right condition, obeys in all things the will of its Head. In the other, His authority over the nations is not manifested in specific laws, in the direct appointment of rulers, in the punishment of offenders. He is not seen or known as exercising royal prerogatives.
Had it been the purpose of God to set the Son at His ascension as the King of the nations, He would in some way have made His kingship so plain that the nations could not have been ignorant of it, and of the duty of allegiance and homage. There must, also, have been in every land those publicly invested with His authority to act as His representatives, and with power to give commands and to compel obedience. But such an exercise of His kingly power would have anticipated the uersal Kingdom; and would have been inconsistent with His action in the gathering of disciples out of the nations through the preaching of the gospel, and with the place given the Church as His witness during His absence. All nations, indeed, now owe to Christ obedience; and the principles of His gospel, as made known to them, should rule in their legislation, and guide public action, and He will help them and bless them through His Spirit; but He does not appoint their princes, nor dictate their laws, nor is His hand seen in judgment. Even if all the individuals of a nation are baptized, it is not, therefore, under Christ as its King, though as members of the Church they are under Him as its Head.
Admitting this distinction between the immediate rule of Christ in His Church and His providential rule over the nations, we easily see that the last is not the fulfillment of the Divine promises respecting the Messianic Kingdom. This fulfillment begins when the Father gives Him the nations as His inheritance, and He comes forth from His Presence; and then "the Gentiles shall see His righteousness, and all kings His glory." At the sounding of the seventh trumpet it is said, "the kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ," and He "takes His great power," and begins to reign. (Rev. xi. 15.)
The fundamental error in the assertion that the present dispensation is the period of the Kingdom, and that the Church is now reigning with Christ, is seen in the consideration of the following particulars: —
That it makes the Church, while being gathered and still imperfect, to fulfill the functions it can fulfill only after it has been gathered and perfected; that it sets aside God's purpose in the Jews; that it confuses Christ's two offices of High Priest and of King; that it makes the present, or Church period, the last period of redemption; and that it seats sinful and mortal men in the throne with the Risen and Glorified One.
1. To affirm that Christ now rules through the Church, is to confound means and end in the Divine purpose of redemption. The Church is an election, some taken from many: but an election is never its own end; it looks forward to something to be done by it when it is completed. The elect are chosen by God and brought into special relations to Him, that they may be used by Him for the blessing of others not of the election; and this end is not effected, in the true sense, till the elect are completed in number, and prepared for their work. As those gathered at our National Military School cannot fulfill the end for which they have been chosen till their education has been completed, nor an army go to war till it has been organized and armed and disciplined; so is it with the elections of God, both Jewish and Christian. This is not to deny that membership in the election, in every stage of its history, is a great individual blessing; nor that, by those gathered from generation to generation, a partial witness is borne for God unto others, and a partial work done. The Church in every age has been His instrument to teach and bless the world. But it remains true that the larger and higher end of the election is not yet reached.
The processes of gathering and of training are only preparatory to future service. This is true of both elections, Jewish and Christian. The Jews must be brought into their true condition as a holy nation, and the Church into its true condition as the glorified body of Christ, ere they can fulfill that for which God has chosen them. Their high work and place are in the future, when, being brought into entire submission to Christ's will and filled with His Spirit, they can be in their respective places His fit instruments to carry on His work, as He in His perfected humanity is the perfect instrument of the Father. He did not receive power till He was risen and glorified; and His servants of both elections must likewise wait till He has prepared them for the respective works He has for them to do in the Messianic Kingdom. The Church must be completed in number, and glorified with the glory of her Head, ere she can be sharer in His dominion.
2. That it sets aside God's purpose in the Jews, His first election. The Jews were chosen that through them as a nation, made obedient and holy, and ruled by His Son, Jehovah might manifest Himself to the nations. And this their calling they have never fulfilled. This is not to deny that God has made them His instruments to enlighten and bless the world; and yet His purpose in them has not been accomplished. For many centuries they have been under His discipline, and scattered in all lands, and yet wonderfully kept by Him for the place they are to fill. To deny them their place in the Messianic Kingdom, is to say that God's purpose can be attained by other means than those He has chosen. But "His gifts and calling are without repentance," for He acts in infinite wisdom; one election cannot take the place of another, the Church cannot take the place of the Jewish nation. Each has its own sphere, and both are necessary for the full revelation of God and of Christ, and for the full accomplishment of the redemptive work.
3. That it confuses the two offices of the Lord, that of High Priest and that of King. These two offices are successive in their order as regards His work in redemption. Ascending, He entered within the veil to do a priestly work, "made an High Priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek." (Heb. vi. 20.) This work continues till He comes forth to take His great power, and to reign. (Rev. xi. 17.) During this period His Church is called to offer up on earth continual prayers and supplications for all men, and to preach everywhere "the gospel of the kingdom;" and it is able to do this only through the power of His intercessions and the ministry of His Spirit. He now stands before the golden altar, and has not yet seated Himself on the throne of His glory. (Heb. iv. 14, viii. 1; Matt. xxv. 35.) This priestly work He continues till all His Church is gathered, and prepared in spirit to be made like Him in glory; and then He comes forth. So long as He abides in the Most Holy, the Church is to fulfill its priestly calling, to preach the gospel unto all men, and wait till He appears and seats it with Him in His throne.
4. That it makes the present, or Church period, the last period of redemption. If this be so, two results follow: first, that His return is for final judgment, and all probation must then cease; all found unrepentant must be cast out and perish. It is scarcely possible, therefore, that His immediate coming can be an object of hope, even to the few who are ready for Him, since the door of salvation to the race at large will then be suddenly and forever closed. To prolong the time of His absence to the uttermost and so to prolong the time of salvation, must be rather the prayer of the Church. And to this instinctive feeling must be, in part at least, ascribed the fact that in so few of the liturgies of the Church any prayers for Christ's speedy coming are found.
It needs but little reflection to see that the aposties could never have believed that the Lord's return would put an end to all probation, and bring in at once uersal and eternal judgment. Had this been so they would not have thought it possible that His return could have been within their own lifetime; or have desired it, since the number that could hear and believe their Gospel must have been very small. How could all to be saved be gathered in the brief space of two or three generations? It is plain that the apostles looked upon the Church as an election,—how many in number they knew not; and that the completion of this election did not bring in the day of final judgment, but rather a day of larger redemption. Being itself completed and perfected, the Church would then become an instrument for the salvation of others. Therefore, the return of the Lord was to bring double blessing, first, as lifting the Church into a condition in which it could render higher service; and second, as opening a new stage of redemptive activity, in which, through the Church perfected, He would manifest His glory before the Jews and the nations.
Again, it affirms that the present dispensation, or Church period, being the last, is the time in which all promises of prosperity and blessing made by the OldTestament prophets are to be fulfilled. This must be so, since these promises refer to the redemptive and not the post-redemptive age. If their fulfillment must, therefore, be in this dispensation, and before Christ's return, has it already taken place? Have the glorious descriptions of the uersal Kingdom already been realized? This will scarcely be said by any. The history of the Church from Pentecost downward has not been such that we can see reflected in it the holiness and truth and peace, or the uersal extension, of the Messianic reign. If, then, the fulfillment of the prophetic predictions is not found in the past of the Church, it must be in its future. And if so, the Church is warranted in looking forward to a time of ever-increasing prosperity; for as Christ now reigns through His Church ruling for Him on earth, He must continue thus to reign till all things are subdued under Him. The time, therefore, must come when the Church will rule all the world in the name of Christ, and the uersal Kingdom be realized in His absence. When He returns, it will not be to set up the Kingdom, but to give it up to the Father.
But when we read the words of the Lord and of His apostles respecting the state of the world and of the Church during His absence, and at His return, we see that they do not correspond to the words of the prophets who describe the peaceful and glorious reign of the Messiah. He declared to His disciples that "as the world had hated Him, it would hate them;" that they would be subject to reproach and persecution and death. (John xv. 18-21.) He nowhere gives any promise of blessedness to the Church until His return. He speaks of wars and famines and pestilences and earthquakes as only "the beginning of sorrows," and of " the great tribulation" that is to precede His coming; and asks whether "the Son of man at His coming will find faith on the earth;" and the apostles speak of the lawlessness and wickedness that mark the last days, and of "the mystery of iniquity" as already working, and to work till "that Wicked be revealed." It is impossible to believe that the Old-Testament prophets on the one hand, and the Lord and the apostles on the other, speak of the same period of time. The former speak of the prosperity and glory that shall be in the world when the Messiah has set up His kingdom; the latter of the trials and tribulations through which the Church must pass during its time of preparation, and before it can be seated with Him in His throne; a type of which was seen in the Lord's own life.
5. That sinful and mortal men dwelling on earth now sit with Christ in the throne of His glory. He was not invested with uersal authority till He rose from the dead, and ascended to God's right hand. (Eph. i. 20.) Must not those who are to be His kings be first made like Him? Must they not be prepared as He was prepared? Through men, mortal and frail, indeed, He now administers His government in the Church; His present work being to gather it and to prepare it for His return in glory. But while helping to prepare others for their high calling, they are themselves in process of preparation; and the place of their present authority is in the Church, not in the world. To affirm that mortal and sinful men are already admitted to have part in His functions of uersal rule, and are empowered by Him to govern the nations, is a proud and presumptuous ante-dating of the Kingdom. His kings must be first made like Him, immortal and incorruptible. When the earthly in them is changed into the heavenly, then can they exercise His heavenly authority.
If the living, still under the law of sin and death, are already reigning with Christ, and kings are by His will now subject to priests, the State to the Church, then there seems no reason why the dead may not also be partakers of His rule. They are, indeed, still under the law of death, and wait for the resurrection; but if the living, who are not yet perfected and glorified, may sit in their thrones, why not the dead saints, also; and if the dead are His kings and priests, why may not the baptized offer to them their petitions, and ask their help? To ask for the intercessions and for the aid of those, whether living or dead, who now reign with Christ, cannot be wrong and contrary to God's will. Thus, before the resurrection, the Church in its two great divisions of the living and the dead is invested with the authority which the Father gave to His Son only after He had exalted Him to His own right hand.
While in all the great divisions of the Christian Church the fundamental principle has been accepted, that the present dispensation is the period of the Kingdom, there is wide diversity as to the extent to which it has been practically carried out. The Church of Rome accepts and defends its full logical results. The Church, it affirms, is a monarchy; it has its earthly head, Christ's one vicegerent; who, because the ruler of the Church, is also the ruler of the nations. The State, indeed, has its own sphere, and there are kings and princes; but as the soul rules the body, so the Church rules the State; and kings and princes are subject to Christ's vicar. To him all owe obedience; and if it be not voluntarily rendered, it must be enforced; and that not merely with spiritual censures, but also with civil penalties. It is right to silence heresy, to crush out error with inexorable rigor, to punish with imprisonment and death all who stubbornly refuse to submit to papal authority. Kings and magistrates, if they refuse to obey Christ's viceroy, may be rightly deposed. Not only is the Church on earth reigning, but the dead saints are also reigning. They may be invoked to help the living, and states and peoples may put themselves under their protection.
In the Greek Church there has not been the same logical boldness in carrying out the principle that the Church is the Kingdom, to its legitimate conclusions. In point of fact, that Church has always been in a position of submission to the State; and its claims have been practically little more than assertions that it alone has retained the doctrine, ministries, and practices of the primitive Church, pure and undefiled; and while using the arm of the civil ruler to put down heresy within the nations of its faith, it has never attempted to enforce its supremacy over others.
In the Reformation the same principle was retained, but under modified forms. Its chief leaders occupied themselves very little with the prophetic future of the Church, or with the purpose of God towards the Jews and the nations. The coming of the Lord was thought of as that of the Judge for final judgment; and there was little expectation of any great prosperity to the Church before that day, which was thought by most not to be far distant. It was not till later that the Reformers began to be dissatisfied with the eschatology inherited from Rome, and to ask whether the Scriptures did not promise to the Church a period of far higher prosperity than it had yet enjoyed. They could not say that its highest development was in the past, for this past was filled with the Roman Church, which they denounced as apostate; it must, therefore, be in the future. The Kingdom, indeed, was set up at Christ's ascension; but His people had been unfaithful, and the gospel hindered. Gradually, however, all the world would become subject to Him through the preaching of the pure gospel, and the nations everywhere become Christian.
Thus, while holding fast the dogma that the present dispensation is the kingdom period, and that all the saved must be gathered into the Church before the Lord's return, the later Reformers and their followers began to put the fulfillment of prophecy respecting the uersal Kingdom in the future. A time is coming, it was said, whether within a few years or many centuries, when all the world will be converted to the truth, and acknowledge Christ as Saviour and Lord. Thus the history of the Church was divided by them into two great periods, — that down to the Reformation, one of progressive error and decline, and that following the Reformation, one of ever-increasing truth and prosperity. In both periods Christ seated in heaven was, indeed, reigning; but only in the last would the world believe on Him, and everywhere honor Him. Thus, the Kingdom is in fact in the future rather than in the past. But in the conception of His reign, almost all the features that mark a kingdom were gradually given up. Christ, it was said, is a King of truth; He rules through the truth; His Kingdom is extended as the truth is received; His kings are the teachers of truth. He subdues the world by the preaching of the Gospel. His Church is one, in that its members hold certain common beliefs, not through the existence of any central authority, or unity of administration; and this community of belief is consistent with manifold sects, with all forms of polity, and with the largest liberty of individual judgment and action.
Thus the reign of Christ is made in effect that of a teacher over his disciples. He rules them in so far as they accept the truth which they find in the Scriptures. If the time comes when the truth there revealed is uersally received, then His reign is uersal. Starting from these principles, a very natural and easy step onward, and one since taken by many, is to regard Christ's chief work as that of a teacher; and as the truth is more important than the personality of the teacher, so with Him. He ceases to be thought of as a king, a living ruler exercising authority, and soon to return to earth to execute judgment and righteousness; and Christianity separated from Him, takes upon itself the form of an ethical system, a moral force in the education of the world. His person and work have but a minor interest.
Thus the conception of the Messianic Kingdom as we have traced it in the Old Testament, early became radically changed. Of the three elements entering into this conception, the first only, that of the uersal rule of Jehovah as to be ultimately realized, but under a spiritualized form, has been retained; the other two elements — the place of the Jews as the theocratic people dwelling in their own land; and of the Messiah as ruling over them, and thus ruling over the nations, and blessing them — were gradually lost from sight. The Jews were put aside, their mission having been fulfilled; and the Messiah need not therefore return to earth, but from heaven can rule the nations through the Church. The saints of the new election take the Kingdom and possess it, the King abiding in the heavens.
The belief that the Church is thus set to rale the world, has brought about results that appear at first directly contradictory. In the Roman communion it has furnished the ground for claims of absolute rule over the baptized, and of uersal authority over the nations. Affirming its infallible guidance, and concentrating all power in the hands of a single chief, its history is the record of most strenuous and persistent attempts to make its domination a reality throughout the world. In the Protestant bodies, especially in those more advanced, the same belief has furnished the ground of republican or democratic forms of polity; all believers as having the Spirit of Christ being equal, the expression of His will is, therefore, to be found in the votes of majorities, rather than in the judgment of any official persons. As all elected rulers owe their election directly or indirectly to the popular will, this will as supreme takes upon itself, in a manner, the attribute of infallibility. But whether democratic or despotic in polity, all divisions agree that the work of redemption is to be effected by the Church during the Lord's absence; and that He returns only to gather all to His bar, dead and living, and to pronounce final sentence.
It is instructive to see how the Anabaptists of Germany during the Reformation, and the Fifth-monarchy men of England, starting from the same assumption that the Church is the Kingdom, should have been led in the general ferment of the time to attempt to make it a reality by violence. Their reasoning was simple and short: the kingdom is Christ's, it is administered by His saints, we are His saints, we will take it by force. To reign on earth during the absence of Christ and before the resurrection, has been the one point in which the Anabaptists and Roman Catholics, Greeks and Protestants, have for the most part agreed; the distinction has been as to the manner in which that reign is to be realized.
In our own time, two currents of opinion are distinctly visible: one, perhaps most noticeable in Protestant bodies, a return to the prophetic teaching respecting the Messianic Kingdom, — a growing belief that at the coming of the Lord, the Jews, restored to their land and to God's favor, will fulfill the purpose of their election under the Messiah, and that God will be sanctified through them in the eyes of all nations; the other, departing ever more widely from the prophetic teaching, and giving up all expectation of Christ's return, and even denying His present existence, believes in no supernatural future, but identifies the Kingdom with the general spread of civilization, and gradual improvement of humanity.