If you block off every channel by which grace might come to your soul, I agree, like an autumn leaf or a dead branch, finally you will fall from the tree.
But God’s mercies are new every morning, rising like the sun. We Christians believe God came in the person of his Son with the aim of reconciling humanity and creation to himself for eternity. And he is kind and dogged in his pursuit of us.
What about those we feel have already gone, lost from us? It seems necessary to believe they’ve fallen into darkness, but it’s a darkness scented with mystery and kindness. One of my favourite bits of poetry anywhere is this:
“Lift up your eyes and look about you: All assemble and come to you; your sons come from afar, and your daughters are carried on the hip. 5 Then you will look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy (Isaiah 60:4-5)
The children they thought were lost forever are carried back to them, all grow’d up. It is poetry. Still…
Like the overture to a symphony, or a trailer for a film, the Old Testament gives us appetizers for what was going to be happen after Jesus came. Here are 14 things about Jesus and his Kingdom, promised then, unfolding now.
The prophet Ezekiel talked about ‘sprinkling clean water on you, and you will be clean’.4
Isaiah had ‘sins [that] are like scarlet’ becoming ‘white as snow’.5
Zechariah talked of a ‘fountain’ that would cleanse from sin and impurity.6
4. New people
Ezekiel talks in terms of a heart-transplant: stony, unyielding hearts replaced with tender, responsive ones.7
Jeremiah promised a new day when God’s purposes and ways would live in people’s hearts and minds. Theirs wouldn’t be a second-hand knowledge, a second-hand love. People would know the Lord for themselves.8
5. Life-giving water
Some Old Testament poetic pictures of the kingdom of God are of abundant, flowing, splashing water.
Isaiah had a vision of living water that anyone could come and drink for free: ‘Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters … without money and without cost.’9
Ezekiel described a river that made the dead places live: ‘Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows … this water … makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live.’10
Within the reign of God, the land would flourish and the people prosper.
‘I will send down showers in season; there will be showers of blessing,’ says Ezekiel. ‘The trees of the field will yield their fruit and the ground will yield its crops; the people will be secure in their land.’11
Jeremiah talked of how God’s people, ‘will rejoice in the bounty of the Lord … they will be like a well-watered garden.’12
There’s talk of rebuilding and renewing, both of communities and of physical infrastructure. The images pour out of scripture: tambourines, dancing, weddings, songs of praise, thronging crowds, re-planted vineyards, re-dug wells, re-built walls.13
(How does this work today? That’s for a later entry. But a clue is Paul saying, ‘I have learnt to be content whatever the circumstances.’ 14)
7. A spreading kingdom
This kingdom was going to spread through the world:
‘It is too small a thing’, Isaiah taught, for the King just to reign over the Jews. All the nations would be blessed. Light would come to the non-Jews and into the most distant parts of the earth. 15
God will send his people to the ‘distant islands that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory.’16
Representatives of the kingdom will ‘proclaim my glory among the nations.’
In several places the Bible pictures the nations loading up their mules and making their way to Mount Zion, an image of peoples entering the presence of God and joining his people.17
All kinds of foreigners, says Psalm 87, will say of ‘Zion’, God’s dwelling place with people: ‘I was born there. That’s my home.’
God promised ‘multitudes’ of descendants to Abraham. He repeated the promise to his son Isaac and repeated it again to his son Jacob.18
Even in the leanest time of Jewish history, with wars lost, people exiled and the temple destroyed, God renewed the promise through Jeremiah. He had not forgotten or changed his mind. God’s people will be more than the stars in the sky, Jeremiah prophesied, more than the sand by the sea.19
9. The greatest kingdom
Isaiah20 and Micah21 describe Mount Zion as becoming ‘the highest among the mountains’ with peoples streaming to it.
The prophet Daniel says: ‘The God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure for ever.’22
10. A peaceable kingdom
This kingdom, though, is peaceable rather than warlike.
As peoples (poetically speaking) camp themselves on Mount Zion, disputes between them will be settled. ‘Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war any more.’23
One of the King’s titles is ‘prince of peace.’ Isaiah’s famous prophecy of him includes the line, ‘of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.’24
God’s kingdom is built not through making war but by waging peace.
11. A meek kingdom
Unlike every other great kingdom, the promised rule of God is saturated in meekness and lowliness.
In a passage nowadays read on Palm Sunday, Zechariah tells the people to ‘rejoice greatly’ because the King comes to them ‘righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’25
Isaiah notes that the King will bring justice to the nations, but he won’t ‘shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets.’26
12. A human kingdom
It’s also a kingdom that manages to work within humanity despite our darkest depths. All the Old Testament prophets speak from a context of human rebellion and divine love, these two principles clanging and sparking as they combat each other. We are at war with ourselves and with God and yet the kingdom will win.
The kingdom is the story of the determined lost wooed by an irresistible Finder; the attempted rejection of a love that will not let us go. Expect turbulence.
13. A kingdom of death and resurrection
It is also a kingdom that only reaches its final shape after a death and resurrection.
Several scary Old Testament passages seem to predict some kind of end of the world before the final expression of the kingdom of God. This is a total mystery and best not speculated upon, though it’s not so hard to believe if you’ve lived in the 20th century, or have studied geology or astronomy.
The Messianic Psalm 110, much quoted in the New Testament, talks of a ‘day of wrath’, and many prophets agree with Isaiah: ‘The Lord Almighty has a day in store for all the proud and lofty, for all that is exalted (and they will be humbled).’
The Prophet Zephaniah warns ‘in the fire of his jealousy the whole world will be consumed, for he will make a sudden end of all who live in the earth.’27
The book of Daniel talks explicitly of the death and resurrection of people: ‘multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth’ will wake up, some to ‘everlasting life’ others to ‘shame and everlasting contempt’.28
14. A new order
Some prophetic words seem to refer to the kingdom after the end, but these come to us perhaps more like the music of distant party rather than a precise account.
The final one of Isaiah’s visions, for example, includes the fascinating picture of ‘all mankind’ bowing down and worshipping; but also of ‘the dead bodies of those who rebelled’—asking us to hold in tension the paradox of God’s universal love and purpose, and the human capacity to spite them.29
What does it mean for us?
Some of this is about the far future
But most of it is the now, our world, with Christ as King.