There seems to be a confused mixing of church and kingdom, but always with the church the big thing, and the kingdom a sort of vague, indefinite -- folks don't seem to know just what -- an ideal, a spiritual conception, or something like that. The church is supposed to have taken the place of the kingdom. Its mission seems to be supposed to be the doing for the world what the kingdom was to do, but, being set aside, failed to do.
In reading the old Book there is a handy sort of explanation largely in use that applies all that can be fitted into the theory in hand, and calmly ignores or conveniently adjusts the rest. The Old Testament blessings for the Jewish kingdom are appropriated and applied to the church. The curses there are handed over to the Jews or ignored. There seems to be a plan of interpreting one part of the Bible one way and another part in a different way. This part is to be taken literally. This other not literally, spiritually, the only guiding principle being the man's preconceived idea of what should be. The air seems quite a bit foggy sometimes. A man has to go off for a bit of fresh air and get straightened out with himself inside.
A whiff of keen, sharp air seems needed to clear the fog and bring out the old outlines -- a whiff? -- a gale! Yet it must needs blow, like God's wind of grace always blows, as a soft gentle breeze. The common law among folk in all other matters for understanding any book or document is that some one rule of interpretation be applied consistently to all its parts. If we attempt to apply here the rule of first-flush, common sense meaning, as would be done to a house lease or an insurance policy, it brings out this surprising thing. The church is distinct from the kingdom. It came through the kingdom failing to come. It fits into a gap in the kingdom plan. It has a mission quite distinct from that of the kingdom.
The church is to complete its mission and go. The kingdom, in the plain meaning of the word kingdom, is to come, and be the dominant thing before the eyes of all men. The church goes up and out. The kingdom comes in and down. Later the church is to be a part of the executive of the kingdom. This seems to be the simple standpoint of the Book.
The tragic break does not hinder the working of the plan. It simply retards it awhile. A long while? Yes -- to man, who counts time by the bulky measurement of years, and can't seem to shake off the time idea; who gets absorbed in moments and hours and loses the broad swing of things. To God? -- No. He lives in eternities, and reckons things by events. His eye never loses the whole, nor a single detail of the whole.
But yet more. That break leads to an enriching of the plan. Out of hate God reveals love. Not a greater love, but a greater opportunity for greatly revealing love. Man's unwillingness and opposition may delay God's plan, but cannot hinder it. A man can hinder it for his own self if he so insist. But for others he can only delay, not hinder. Though God may patiently yield His own plan, for a time, to something else, through which meanwhile His main purpose is being served, yet He never loses sight of His own plan -- the highest expression of His love. And when He does so yield, it is that through the interruption He may in the long run work out the higher and the highest.
And so in the fulfilment of God's plan as given by His Hebrew spokesmen, there is a sort of sliding scale. A partial fulfilment takes place, leaving the full fulfilment for the full working out of the plan. The fulfilment takes place in two stages, the first being only less full than the final. Thus Elijah is to come. But first comes John, a man with most striking resemblance to Elijah. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit prophesied in Joel is to be upon all flesh. But before that takes place, comes the Pentecost outpouring, filling out the Joel prophecy in spirit, but not in the full measure.
As a matter of good faith the King must come back and carry out the kingdom plan in full. And judging simply by the character of God and of Jesus, I haven't a bit of doubt that He will do it. No amount of disturbance ever alters the love of God, nor His love-plan in the long run, however patiently He may bear with breaks.
Even this phase is in the minor strain of the old Hebrew. "They shall look upon Him whom they have pierced; and they shall mourn for Him, as one mourneth for his only son." There is a future meeting of the rejected King and His rejecting people, and this time with sorrow for their former conduct, which implies different conduct at this meeting time. And to this agrees the whole swing of the New Testament teaching. Peter says the going away of Jesus is to be "until the restitution of all things." He is to return and carry out the old plan.
It's a bit unfortunate that some earnest, lovable people have pushed this phase of truth so much to the front as to get it out of its proportion in the whole circle of truth. Truth must always be kept in its place in the circle of truth. Truth is fact in right proportion. Out of that it begins to breed misstatement and error. Jesus' coming back is not to wind things up. It is to begin things anew. There will be certain phases of judgment, doubtless, a clearing of the deck for action, but no general judgment till long after. The kingdom is to swing to the front, and bring a new life to the earth for a very long time. Then after that the wind-up.
The gospel preached in the Acts is the "gospel of the kingdom." They are always expecting it to come. Paul constantly alludes to the Master's return as the great thing to look forward to, as distinctly at the close as at the beginning of his ministry. The book of Revelation is distinctly a kingdom book, and however it may, with the versatility of Scripture to serve a double purpose, foreshadow the characteristics of history for the centuries since its writing, plainly its first meaning has to do with the time when "the kingdom of the world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ." The King is coming back to straighten matters out, and organize a new running of things. This is the church's surprise, and a great surprise it will apparently be to a great many folks, though not to all.