This represents the third in a series of guest posts by Charles Williams, Ordained Elder at Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, Ambler (OPC). The series contain four parts: An Argument from Experience, Reason, Scripture, and the Benefits of Presbyterianism (which flow from Scripture). You can read part 1 here, and part 2 here.
It’s worth noting (hence why I’m noting it) that the Bible is very concerned with God’s government of his people. In Genesis 3:15, God promises the woman that her Seed would crush the head of the serpent. In Genesis 22:17-18, God promised Abraham that his Seed (singular: see Galatians 3:16) would possess the gate of his enemies. This is conquest language – that is, the language of kingship and rule in the midst of one’s enemies – and as the rest of Genesis makes clear, the language of battle between the godly and Satanic lines. If you trace the genealogy (of which the Bible exhibits explicit concern) throughout the Old Testament, you come to Abraham’s descendant, David, the one to whom God had promised to give an everlasting throne. Keep reading, however, and you are stuck with a thorny theological problem: that of the exile of the people of God from their homeland. Such is the question posed by the Chronicler: has God reneged on his promises?
The prophet Isaiah himself had (even prior to the exile) foretold of the day when the Son of David would restore the fallen kingdom:
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this” (Is. 9:6-7).
Notice the repeated promise given: it is the governmental rule of David’s Greater Son that is of paramount concern to Isaiah. But in light of the exile, the Chronicler’s question remains: has God changed his mind? How can it be said that David’s throne will be established forever when Israel’s kings are enslaved to the Babylonians?
It is this answer that Matthew addresses in the opening chapter of his Gospel. Matthew’s genealogy is best understood in terms of a royal apology. It is a defense of the legitimacy of Jesus of Nazareth’s right to rule. Matthew is explicit: Jesus is the Messiah – the promised Son of David – come from the line of Abraham and David, come both to fulfill and inherit all the promises given to the patriarchs.
Jesus’ defeat of Satan in the wilderness temptation ends with a citation – from where? – from Isaiah 9:1-2, of all places, that is, the very same passage which concerns itself with the restoration of the kingdom. In other words, Christ’s temptation is not merely exemplary: it demonstrates Christ’s subjugation of the serpent in the midst of demonic temptation. Here Christ succeeds where Adam had failed. And upon the Messiah’s defeat of the devil in the wilderness, what becomes the explicit concern of Jesus in his public ministry? Matthew 4:17 is clear: “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Christ’s greatest concern, then, is with the proclamation of this governmental kingdom. Such was the message of John the Baptist (Matt. 3:2). Such was the message of Christ (Matt. 4:17). Such was the message Christ commanded his disciples to proclaim (Matt. 10:7). Upon Peter’s confession that Jesus is, in fact, the Messiah, Christ promises to build his church, and then entrusts to Peter the keys (i.e., entrance in) to the kingdom to him.
In other words, the Messiah himself makes a close correlation between his kingdom and the church. Paul makes the point in his letter to Ephesus, when he says that the Messiah’s resurrection and ascension was the moment when God both began to subject all things to Christ’s rule, and when God gave Christ to be head over all things to the church. That is to say, Christ’s kingdom rule is visibly demonstrated in the way in which he governs his church. Or as the Westminster Confession of Faith 25.2 puts it, “The visible church…is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
That God has put all things under Christ’s feet is an allusion to Psalm 110 – the most cited Old Testament text in the New Testament. It is cited or alluded to at least nineteen times – which is itself interesting, because it was hardly considered a Messianic text in the inter-testamental period; yet it forms one of the chief proof-texts which elucidate the nature of the reign of our resurrected Lord. In pointing out the fact that the Messiah is David’s greater Son, Jesus himself cites it in his dispute with the Pharisees (Matt. 22:41-46). Peter cites Psalm 110 as the capstone of his Pentecost sermon explaining the significance of the resurrection. Paul alludes to it when he cites Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation to the heavenly session as the reward for his obedience unto death (Philippians 2:5-11). And then there’s the (whole) Book of Hebrews, which expounds on the significance of Christ’s resurrection as our ascended Priest-King.
To put it bluntly, the New Testament has at its core a concern with explaining Jesus’ physical, bodily resurrection and ascension into heaven as a Messianic enthronement, in which all history from the Cross to the Consummation is summarized in terms of all things being subjugated to Christ’s rule, either through reconciliation now through the folly of the word of the cross (1 Cor. 1:18-25), or in judgment and wrath at the Last Day when all men will give a rendering for their works (Jude 1:14-15).
Even the Great Commission is founded on this principle. Upon Jesus’s resurrection, he tells his disciples that all authority in heaven and on earth had now been given unto him. As the resurrected Messiah, Jesus has the authority as David’s Greater Son, the one to whom was to be given the eternal throne, to commission his disciples to go to the nations to teach them all that the Messiah-King has commanded.
In other words, our evangelism is grounded in Jesus’ reign as our High Priest and Mediator. And this means that the church (as has already been stated) is the visible manifestation of Christ’s mediatorial reign and kingdom on earth. From Christ’s resurrection until his return, all history is summed up in Christ’s enemies being made his footstool through the proclamation of his gospel, that rebels against the Great King can be reconciled through the finished, propitiatory work of Christ.
“So what?” you might be asking. “What on earth does this have to do with Presbyterianism?” The point is this: that government matters. That Christ’s government matters. And that Christ reigns now, by his Word and His Spirit, and through his Church. In other words, Christ’s kingdom is not something that will come after Nicholas Cage defeats the antichrist. If Christ’s kingdom was inaugurated at his resurrection, and if the New Testament authors aren’t lying (pro tip: they aren’t lying), then Christ’s reign is not something relegated to a future moment in history. Christ’s reign is being exercised now. Even if we don’t see all things yet subjugated to him (Hebrews 2:8-10), the truth is that all things are now being subjugated to him as his kingdom-rule spreads by the proclamation of his gospel (Heb. 9:27-28). And all things will be fully subjected to him when he returns on the clouds in glory (Matt. 24:30).
In short, if the New Testament confirms the Old Testament hope that by the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, God’s eternal kingdom has begun to be established on earth; and if Christ’s reign has already begun by virtue of his exaltation (i.e., his resurrection, ascension, and heavenly session upon the eternal throne), and is not merely pushed back to some far off future event; then this has considerable repercussions for how we think about the nature of the way in which Christ presently governs his kingdom. That Christ reigns now radically alters how we are to consider church government.
Stay Tuned to see the Benefits of Presbyterianism and the Implications of Christ’s present reign on Church Structure in Part 4.