Someone told me years ago that he set out to see if there was anything that all churches did in common in their services, and he concluded that he had found it – they all say the Lord’s Prayer – only to discover to his surprise that Churches of Christ do not. The reason for this is that it has held that the kingdom came in the form of the church; since Jesus taught his disciples to pray that prayer, and we are not to pray “Thy kingdom come” when it has already come.
It is true that Paul in Colossians 1:13 says, “He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love,” and Hebrews 12:28 indicates that we are already in possession of “a kingdom that cannot be shaken.” And Jesus promised Peter the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” in the context of “Upon this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18-19). This identification of the kingdom of God with the institutional church was the dominant understanding in the Latin Catholic Church from Augustine in the fourth century up through the middle of the twentieth century.
But there are other classical understandings of the kingdom of God. These can be summarized as the kingdom is now and not yet. It is near and far away. Its coming has signs, but those signs can never be attached to events around us. What Jesus does not know, I do not know. In recent decades many in Churches of Christ have come to a broader view of the nature of the kingdom of God. While the church is a manifestation of that kingdom on earth, it is far more than that, they now allow. There is a future dimension to the kingdom, as in Revelation 11:15: “The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.” It is something like a rose, which in bud is already a rose, but it flowers into far greater glory.
And so we are increasingly finding it appropriate to pray, “Thy kingdom come,” for we now see that there is much of the kingdom yet to be revealed. But we are not yet, except for a few exceptions, praying the Lord’s Prayer in our churches. This is wonderfully true at Norway Avenue Church of Christ.
As to what “Thy kingdom come” means William Barclay provides an interesting answer. He sees it as part of a Hebrew parallelism where the second line interprets, or says in other words, what the first line says. And so when that part of the Lord’s Prayer reads,
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,
The second line explains, or means the same, as the first line. That is, to pray the kingdom will come (to earth) is to pray for God’s will to be done on earth as God’s will is being done in heaven. It is to pray that life on planet earth will become more like life in heaven. On the simplest level the will of God is God’s desire for the good will of his people. God desires that good because he is holy love. These lines indicate that Jesus believed in angels, and that they are doing God’s will in heaven. It infers that there is activity in heaven that conforms to God’s will. In praying “Thy kingdom come (to earth),” we are praying Like heaven, like earth.
That the Greek word for kingdom means rule or reign supports this interpretation. To pray for the kingdom to come is to pray for God to rule in the hearts of men, from the lowliest peasant to the loftiest king. Where God reigns, as in heaven, there is love, joy, and peace, a place free of violence, greed, and injustice. In teaching his disciples to pray for the reign of God on earth is he not calling for a “new earth” – a redeemed world – radically transformed from the earth we now know? And is it not sure to come – more gradually, maybe apocalyptically – but sure to come? God’s servants, the prophets, have given us some clues as to what it might be like.
Isaiah looked forward to such a transformation that “The earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea,” and to such peace that “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb” (11:9, 6). Jeremiah saw a future in which it would no longer be necessary to teach or evangelize, “for they shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them” (31:34). Micah foretold of a time when nations shall beat their swords into plowshares and study war no more (4:3). No more war! And Amos assures us that “The Lord God does nothing unless he reveals His secret to His servants the prophets” (3:7). So, if we are interested in God’s secrets, or what he is up to, it is best that we consult the prophets rather than our own speculations.
The primary understanding of the kingdom of heaven was that it is God’s reign over the lives of the people who enthrone him as king. The rabbis knew that most of the world did not know God, but the Scriptures promised that one day, “The Lord will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one Lord, and his name the only name” (Zechariah 14:9).
The question of Jesus’ time was when and how God would establish his reign over all the nations. It was thought that when the Messiah came, the kingdom of God would arrive all at once with great glory. But Jesus disagreed with this idea.
“Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, ‘The kingdom of God does not come with careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you’ (Luke 7:20).
Jesus meant that a person is brought into the kingdom of God when that person repents and decides to accept God as his King. It is something that happens in a person’s heart, and not a political movement or visible display of God’s power.
So the two phrases “your kingdom come” and “your will be done on earth” are synonymous. They are saying “May all the peoples of the earth enthrone you as King! May everyone on earth know you and do your will!”
Even with the prophets there is no absolute clarity, hardly more than metaphorical hints of what shall be. We yet see only through a glass darkly, and so it is best that we not prepare a “kingdom agenda,” as the manner of some is. But we are assured that there is a God’s tomorrow with it “new heavens and a new earth.” We know enough that we can meaningfully pray “Thy kingdom come,” believing that it will indeed come in its full glory.
When we pray those phrases ourselves, we are asking for God to use us to spread the gospel and establish God’s reign over all the earth!"