“It’s not to the government, nor to any king or pope or any other ruler, but rather to the church — to this ragtag bunch of argumentative, self-centered, struggling-for-holiness but gloriously forgiven sinners — that the keys of the kingdom of God are given.”
The Kingdom of God Is Manifested in This Present Age
There is an old hymn that begins,
I love thy kingdom Lord,
the house of thine abode,
the church our blessed Redeemer saved
with his own precious blood!
It’s pretty common seminary humor to make fun of that hymn, chuckling at the naïveté of the author to equate the kingdom of God and the church like that. And of course there’s some truth in that thought. Without getting into whether Timothy Dwight really did equate the church and the kingdom, it’s important to note that biblically speaking you can’t do that. The kingdom of God is indeed much more than—and different from—the church. Just try replacing “kingdom” in the New Testament with “church,” or “church” with “kingdom,” and you quickly realize that synonyms they are not.
However, it’s also true that like your rearview mirror says, these two things—the church and the kingdom—are actually “closer than they appear,” and closer than we often give them credit for.
The Church’s Role
Jesus’s words in Matthew 16 are hugely important here, for it is in that chapter that he institutes his church “upon this rock” of Peter’s confession of faith and then immediately says, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (v. 19). “You” refers not to Peter but to the church, as becomes clear in Matthew 18. But still it’s an astounding statement. The keys of the kingdom of God—the authority of that kingdom, the right to act in its name—are given in this age, by the King, to the church!
It’s not to the government, nor to any king or pope or any other ruler, but rather to the church—to this ragtag bunch of argumentative, self-centered, struggling-for-holiness but gloriously forgiven sinners—that the keys of the kingdom of God are given. To put it another way, the church acts as a sort of embassy for the government of the King. It is an outpost of the kingdom of God surrounded by the kingdom of darkness.