In the late 1920’s American astronomer Edwin Hubble spent hundreds of hours hunched over a table, poring over photos of distant stars. He reviewed thousands of images. He often spent his nights gazing at the heavens through the then new 100-inch reflecting telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory in California. He collected and organized data. The upshot of his work was a realization no one expected: the universe was expanding. Countless billions of stars were hurtling out, out, out into the void – some at velocities close to the speed of light.
The cosmos was getting bigger.
Park that thought, and ponder this one: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). And then this one: “Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end” (Isaiah 9:7). (Note that word increase.) Weld all these truths together and here is what you get: God’s Kingdom, like his creation, is ever-increasing. It moves out, out, out into the darkness.
How does this happen? How does the reign of God “move out”?
Step back and look at the Big Story: From Abraham to Acts, God’s reign among his people has expansive force – always pushing out, out, out – to the nations of the earth. He promises Abraham that he will bless him – so that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). He raises up Abraham’s great-grandson Joseph to save thousands of people from starvation: “The people of all the earth came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph, because the famine was severe in all the earth” (Genesis 41:57). Later, he rescues Abraham’s descendants from Egypt (throwing in some drama and fireworks along the way) “so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth” (Exodus 9:16). Later still, he chooses Jerusalem as the place where his manifest presence will dwell (Deuteronomy 12:11; 1 Kings 8:10; Psalm 48:2). In Jerusalem there will be his Temple. But the Temple will not be a private worship-club for Abraham’s ethnic offspring. It will be the God-appointed place where Israel and the nations (yes, the nations – uncircumcised, don’t-know-the-Law, we-eat-pork-chops nations) can come and meet God. Why? So that (as Solomon prays when he dedicates the Temple) “all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you” (1 Kings 8:43)
The climax of the expanding Kingdom story comes in a grimly local event: Jesus dying on the cross. He dies for the sins of the world (note that – the world). He rises again. He ascends into heaven, sits down at the right hand of God, and sends the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:33). With the ascension of Christ and the descent of the Spirit, things change in heaven and on earth. The gospel meets resistance, but it plows through it: “So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily” (Act 19:20 ESV). Jerusalem takes on a transformed role. Much of the Old Testament sees Jerusalem as a destination. A meeting place. Pilgrims gather three times a year to worship in Zion (Deuteronomy 16:16). Even God comes to Jerusalem: Psalm 68 describes him striding across the desert (earthquakes and storms in his wake), into Jerusalem, and “into his sanctuary” (v17 NIV). But the ascension of Jesus and the descent of the Spirit are game-changers. What was a gathering place now becomes a departure point: The Spirit-enabled Church moves out from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8). At the end of the book of Acts, we see the apostle Paul “proclaiming the kingdom of God” not in Jerusalem but in the ultimate anti-Jerusalem: Rome (Acts 28:31). Advancing gospel, expanding reign. The kingdom of Jesus has come to the city of Caesar.
Cosmic expansion: the stars hurtle into the void. Gospel expansion: Paul looks for “the word of the Lord… [to] speed ahead and be honoured” (2 Thessalonians 3:1). Vivid pictures of dramatic outward movement. But there’s another image Scripture uses of God’s Reign taking new ground, and it’s decidedly undramatic.
We find it in one of Jesus’ shortest parables: “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened” (Mt 13:33). That’s it: just 23 words. Brief and to the point – but the point is expansion. Not Hubble’s speeding stars. Not Paul’s “speed ahead…and be honoured” progress of the gospel. Rather, something that starts hidden (the woman “hid” the leaven in the flour), and moves quietly.
Think of a mission team in a mountain village in India. After long sacrifice and hard work and wearying travel they see an animist family embrace the gospel. Think of Wilberforce in the House of Commons. After years of prayer and bruising political battles he sees a vote that, at long last, prohibits British ships from hauling human beings to slave markets in America. Think of me, grandfather-age, a veteran of decades of quiet, sometimes painful conversations with wise pastors about my identity in Christ, still discovering the enabling grace of God. All three scenarios (the mission team, the activist, the grandfather) are really the same scenario: growth behind the scenes, hidden and unspectacular: The leaven of the kingdom working its miraculous way through the dough.
If the King can bring his gospel to Rome, he can bring it anywhere: animist villages, political assemblies, confused emotions. Edwin Hubble was right: the stars speed outward. So was Isaiah: of the increase of Christ’s Kingdom there is no end. Destination-point Jerusalem has become launch-pad Jerusalem, in order that the announcement of the Kingdom may speed out, and out, and out, and be honoured. When it lands, it triggers beneath-the- surface leavening in nations and grandfathers. They start the sometimes slow journey of learning to choose God and his ways. Steady and slow, or light-speed fast, when stars or the gospel move into the darkness, it is no longer dark.