The two kingdoms doctrine in Lutheran theology is not just distinction between the church and the state, the sacred and the secular, or the spiritual and the physical. Luther often described them as the “temporal kingdom” and the “eternal kingdom.”
Though temporal and eternal includes the other senses, the distinction between the temporal and the eternal is a classic Christian concept that is often neglected today. The temporal is within time; it is the realm of change, instability and what passes away. Creation is time bound, and, as part of the temporal order, so are we. We grow up, grow old and die. The eternal is beyond time; it is the realm of God, everlasting life and salvation.
The Bible contrasts these two realms. “Surely the people are grass,” says Isaiah. “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:7–8).
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal,” says Jesus, “but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:19–21).
Despite its impermanence, the temporal realm is still important. God rules as King here too. It is His creation. We inhabit the temporal realm as fish inhabit water. Here we come to faith and grow in faith. God has called Christians to temporal vocations — in our families, the workplace, our citizenship and the church — in which we live out our faith in love and service to our neighbors.
But we can get so wrapped up in our temporal life that we neglect our citizenship in God’s eternal kingdom. When Jesus and His disciples visited Mary and Martha, Martha complained that her sister Mary was not helping. Martha “was distracted with much serving.” As a result, she was “anxious and troubled about many things” (Luke 10:40–41).
This is an occupational — indeed, a vocational — hazard for all of us. We become so caught up in serving others that we become distracted, anxious and troubled.
Jesus commended Mary for choosing the good portion, for recognizing that only “one thing is necessary” (Luke 10:42). And what was that? She “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching” (Luke 10:39).
This account is not about the superiority of the contemplative life over the active life, as it is often taken in defenses of monasticism. The Swedish Lutheran pastor and novelist Bo Giertz unpacked the vocational implications of this text (A Year of Grace, Vol. 2: “Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity”). He writes, addressing Martha: “Certainly, there is much you have to do. But behold, there is only one thing needful, and Mary has chosen this” (p. 104). Even in the midst of our busy temporal concerns, we can sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to His teaching by means of the Word and the Sacraments. “When His teachings are received, then He goes with you in your work so that you shall get along with it too” (p. 108).
Cultivating an eternal perspective does not mean rejecting our life in the temporal world, rather it puts it into perspective. Like Martha, we can easily become distracted, anxious and troubled by political issues, economic problems, sickness and other trials and tribulations of a fallen world.
Though moths, rust and thieves can take away our treasures on earth, however, we have treasures in heaven. This is because “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). He rules both realms, and, because of the Gospel, we have a secure place in His eternal kingdom.
“We are forgiven sinners and at the same time God’s beloved children,” says Rev. Giertz. “That is the one thing needful” (p. 108).