There are many texts in Paul where one could illuminate the theme of this series. I have chosen Colossians 1, but others would include Ephesians 1 among others.
Kingdom language is not as frequent in Paul as it is in the Gospels, but it is nevertheless part of the substance of his theological perspective. For Paul the kingdom is both present and future; it is a reality but progressively breaking into the world as the cosmos moves toward consummation (renewal). This already/not-yet tension is the dynamic in which believers pursue a life worthy of the gospel. But their pursuit of that life is grounded in the grace of God’s redemptive act in Christ and enabled by the power of divine glory. This is, in part, the point of Colossians 1.
“And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power acccording to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:10-14).
In recent years it has been rather problematic to talk about living a “life worthy of the Lord” as if this is a denial of grace and an embrace of works-righteousness. Grace can become an entitlement for reward or at worst a license for selfishness. But, of course, grace is not intended to be either. Rather, grace is empowerment to become what God created us to be; it is the power to become the image of God. Grace is not only the forgiveness of sins but also the strength to “live a life worthy of the Lord.”
That life is kingdom life; it is light in the darkness. It is filled with good works, intimacy with God, patient endurance, and joyful gratitude. This is the life that reflects the kingdom of light. People governed by the kingdom of grace breakout as light into a world dominated by the kingdom of darkness.
Redemption, in fact, is not only the forgiveness of sins, but it is also a rescue from the kingdom of darkness. This not only includes deliverance from the guilt and power of sin, but it is a delieverance for a life embodying the reality of the kingdom of God in the world. Salvation is not simply a negation of the past (forgiveness of past sins) and a clean slate for the present, but also a positive empowerment for living a “life worthy of the Lord.”
“For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation…This is the gospel you have heard….” (Colossians 1:19-22, 23b).
This deliverance was accomplished by the act of God in Christ. This act is both incarnation (God dwelling somatically in the darkness) and passion (shed blood and physical death). This is the gospel, Paul writes. God acts through Jesus “to reconcile himself to all things.”
Reconciliation, highlighted in this text, is a theme that illuminates the meaning of salvation as reversal of the curse. The “curse,” inclusive of the consequences of sin in the world, is the state of alienation present in the cosmos. It is alienation between God and humanity–we were enemies and we stood before God accused by the accuser. It is alienation between heaven and earth–as we yet pray that the will of God will be done on earth as it is heaven.
Reconciliation is a cosmic task with a cosmic goal. The kingdom of God will bring peace to the cosmos–to both heaven and earth. This involves the presentation of believers as holy and blameless as an eschatological reality. It also involves the renewal of creation itself, a liberation of creation from its bondage to decay (Romans 8:20-21). It involves the union of heaven and earth in the glorious joy and peace which God, through Jesus, enacts for his creation.
“This is the gospel you have heard,” Paul writes. The gospel is a divine act; it is what God does. God reconciles. And what he does, he does through Jesus. The gospel, then, is Theocentric–flowing from the Father’s initiative and love (“it pleased…). The gospel is also Christocentric in terms of means or instrumentality; God reconciles through Jesus. The good news (“gospel”) is that God has acted and continues to act to reconcile, to bring peace. This shalom is not something reserved for the inner life of human hearts as significant and welcome that is, or even between human beings themselves which is so needed in our broken world, but it is also a gift for the creation itself which groans to be released from the burden of the curse.
Cosmic reconciliation–shalom in both heaven and earth–is good news for God’s broken creation.
“Now I rejoice in what was suffred for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the chruch…that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me” (Colossians 1:24, 28b-29).
Cosmic reconciliation is a divine project. God initiated it. God preserves it. God empowers it. But, amazingly, he calls us to participate in his redemptive reconciling story.
Paul’s language here is quite shocking in at least two ways, but the language reflects God’s interest in our participation in his project.
First, Paul’s own suffering in his flesh and for the Colossians supplies what is “lacking” in Christ’s own suffering in the flesh and for the Colossians. This is a rather awkward saying, is it not? Is Christ’s own suffering somehow insufficient? What does it lack? If we think of Christ’s suffering as movement toward the effective reconciliation, Paul participates in that movement through his own suffering. Just as Christ suffered for his church, so also Paul suffered for the body of Christ (Colossians 1:24 describes the suffering of both “for” believers with the same word.) Paul suffers for cosmic peace; he ministers as an agent of reconciliation. In this way Paul participates in the divine project.
His suffering and the suffering of Christ are engaged in the same goal and thus Paul’s suffering fills what is lacking in the suffering of Christ. But exactly what might that be? Paul continues the ministry of Jesus; he continues the ministry of reconciliation which God in Jesus inaugurated, grounded and preserves by his power. This reconciling ministry is not yet finished; it continues through believers. Believers are the body of Christ in the world; they are Jesus in the present. They are the hands and feet of Jesus, and the reconciling ministry continues through the earthly body of Christ. We suffer for the sake of reconciliation; we pursue peace even when peacemakers are mocked, persecuted, and dismissed.
Second, Paul’s goal in suffering for and ministering within the body of Christ is that “we may present everyone perfect in Christ.” Paul uses the same word in Colossians 1:28 that he used in Colossians 1:22–“present.” In the former text, Paul says “we…present” but in the latter text it is God who “presents.” God will present his people holy and blameless in the eschatological future, but this presentation is something in which we participate as ministers of reconciliation. We proclaim the gospel, practice the gospel, and live worthy of the gospel that we might present others to God “perfect” and holy.
We serve others for the sake of reconciliation and peace. This is the ministry of the church. It is the ministry of Jesus. This is a reversal of the curse; it is the kingdom of grace, light and peace. When God reigns in the world, peace permeates. When God reigns in his cosmos, all things in heaven and earth are reconciled to him.
This is the good news of the kingdom of God. God is at work, through his people and in other ways, to reverse the curse and bring shalom to his cosmos.