The kingdom defined
Graham Goldsworthy (Gospel and Kingdom, 47) has defined the kingdom of God as:
(a) God’s people
(b) in God’s place
(c) under God’s rule
(a) Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden
(b) The descendents of the patriarchs in the promised land
(c) The Israelites in the united kingdom of David and Solomon
Along similar lines, we may say that the kingdom of God (or similar expression) is God’s kingly rule manifested in the lives of his people, Lk 17:21, effecting their salvation, Mar 10:28-29. Such, who submit to God’s kingly rule, collectively constitute the church, Mt 16:18-19. The kingdom will reach its consummation in the redeemed universe, Mt 25:34. It is evident in the various NT references to the kingdom of God that now one, then another, aspect of the kingdom is uppermost.
Jesus ‘spoke about the kingdom of God’ throughout his post-resurrection ministry, Acts 1:3. The kingdom is the ‘good news’ which Philip proclaimed to the Samaritans, 8:12.
God’s rule originates in past eternity, as the words ‘appointed’, ‘plan’, ‘purpose’, ‘ordained’, ‘predestined’, and ‘foreknowledge’ suggest (Acts 2:23; 4:28; 3:20; 20:27; 21:14; 13:48-49).
It extends to the control of nations, Acts 17:26-27; and to the providential support of all human life, 14:17; 17:25-26. But it is especially apparent in God’s provision of salvation; for it is God who calls men, 2:39; adds to the church, 2:47; turns men from wickedness, 3:26; grants repentance and forgiveness, 5:31; 13:48.
The centrality of Christ in the kingdom is apparent from Acts 1:1, suggesting as it does that Acts is the continuation of the record of all that Jesus did and taught. His exaltation to the Father’s right hand is constantly underscored, 2:33; 5:31; 7:55. Jesus is King, occupying the throne of David, 2:30. Cf Acts 3:5,16; 4:10,30; 10:36,42; 17:31; also 17:7.
The kingdom misunderstood
D.A. Carson has an article in Evangelicals Now entitled ‘Common Errors in Understanding the Kingdom’.
Here’s a summary of what Carson has to say about various misunderstandings of the kingdom of God that are around at the moment:-
1. The church as belonging to the present dispensation, and the kingdom to the next. But passages such as Colossians 1:13-14 cannot be squared with this.
2. Regarding ‘church’ and ‘kingdom’ as different words for the same thing. But they are not synonymous: ‘church’ refers to God’s people, and ‘kingdom’ refers to God’s rule.
3. Misunderstanding the ‘already/not yet’ tension. The kingdom has both a present manifestation, and a future consummation, and we should not so emphasise one as to neglect the other.
4. Confusing the universal and the salvific aspects of the kingdom. Some texts, such as Psalm 103:19, include the entire creation under God’s reign. Other texts, such as John 3:3,5, make it clear that seeing, or entering, the kingdom, is dependent upon being born from above, or again. God rules over an unregenerate world in the first sense, but only over his redeemed people in the second sense.
5. Using ‘kingdom’ as an adjective. The problem here is that many Christians use ‘kingdom’ to bless whatever it is they want to bless. ‘Kingdom living’ and ‘kingdom ethics’ can easily become shorthand ‘the kind of living or ethics that we ourselves approve of’.
6. Adopting a ‘red letter’ approach. Some claim to hold the same beliefs and values as other Christians, but give special prominence to the teaching of Jesus. This prompts them to pay special attention to the problems of poverty, hunger and war. This not only creates a canon-within-a-canon, but also obscurs the story-line of the Gospels, which climaxes in the cross and resurrection.
‘In short’ (Carson concludes), ‘serious Christians will want to avoid reductionism. We must carefully study the sweep of ‘kingdom’ uses, pay close attention to the immediate context, and faithfully emphasize what all of Scripture declares to be matters ‘of first importance’.
Mapping the kingdom
Central to the teaching and mission of Jesus is the kingdom of God. It is mentioned in over 60 separate sayings in the Gospels (all except two of these are in the Synoptics). It occurs at key points, including the message of John the Baptist (Mt 3:2), the first announcement of Jesus (Mk 1:15), the beatitudes (Mt 5:3,10), the Lord’s Prayer (Mt 6:10), and the Last Supper (Mk 14:25). The kingdom of God also features prominently in many of Jesus’ parables.
Various understandings of the kingdom of God have been canvassed:-
1. The political kingdom. According to this interpretation, Jesus was a revolutionary who sought to free Israel from Roman tyranny and establish a kingdom in Jerusalem.
The evidence, such as it is, for this view is that Jesus ‘sought to arm his disciples (Luke 22:35–38), entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday as a king (Mark 11:11), challenged the political establishment by cleansing the temple (Mark 11:15–18), urged people to rebel by not paying their taxes (Mark 12:13–17 is reread to teach the opposite of its present meaning), enlisted zealots as disciples (Mark 3:18), used the taking up of the cross (which was a symbol of zealot sacrifice for enlisting disciples; Mark 8:34), and was crucified as a political rebel (Mark 15:26) between two other rebels (Mark 15:27).’ (Stein, EDBT)
But this interpretation is unsustainable. As Stein says, ‘the presence of a tax collector among the disciples is impossible to explain if Jesus were a revolutionary, for tax collectors were seen as collaborators with the Romans and hated by zealots. Such teachings as Matthew 5:9 (“Blessed are the peacemakers”); 38–42 (“If someone [a Roman soldier] forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles”); 43–47 (“Love your enemies”); Matthew 26:52 (“all who draw the sword will die by the sword”); Mark 12:13–17 (“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s”) simply do not permit such an interpretation.’
2. The ethical kingdom. Liberal theology minimised or discounted the soteriological and eschatological aspects of Jesus’ teaching, and focused instead on God’s ‘spiritual’ reign in a person’s heart leading to an inner moral ethic. A key text for these teachers was Lk 17:20f, “The kingdom of God is within you.” But too much else in Jesus’ teaching was ignored.
3. The future kingdom. At the end of the 19th century, the eschatological aspects of Jesus’ teaching were rediscovered. As a 1st-century Jew, Jesus would have shared an expectation of a future, supernatural kingdom that would bring history to a close. Jesus, it was thought, expected this kingdom to be ushered in very soon. In the meantime, he promulgated an interim ethic for the brief in-between period of history. Because the end was nigh, Jesus’ followers could be urged to refrain from marriage, love their enemies, turn the other cheek, and give to whoever was in need.
Although this interpretation takes the eschatological teaching of Jesus seriously, it neglects those aspects of his teaching that indicate that the kingdom had, in some sense, already arrived. Such teachings were bracketed out as being inauthentic and later inventions of the church.
4. The present kingdom. In reaction to the previous view, some scholars adopted an opposite interpretation, according to which the kingdom had already arrived in the coming of Jesus. Teaching about the future aspects of the kingdom were regarded as inauthentic.
5. The ‘present and future’ kingdom. If we are to deal with the entire range of evidence about the kingdom of God, then we must conclude that there are both present and future aspects. It is both ‘now’ and ‘not yet’.
That the kingdom had, in some sense, already arrived is clear from a range of passages. ‘Jesus told his hearers “if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (Luke 11:20; cf. Matt. 12:28)…Elsewhere Jesus declared that his coming marked the end of the old era when he said “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached” (Luke 16:16). Here two distinct periods of history are distinguished. The former is referred to as the period of the Law and the prophets. The second is the period of the kingdom of God. John the Baptist is seen as a bridge who both brings the “old” to its conclusion and announces the breaking in of the “new.” This “new” thing, which cannot be mixed with the old (Mark 2:21–22), which gathers the outcasts (Matt. 11:4–6) and the lost tribes of Israel (Mark 3:13–19; Matt. 19:28), which manifests signs and marvels (Matt. 13:16–17), which inaugurates a new covenant (1 Cor. 11:25), is nothing other than the arrival of the kingdom of God. Jesus also announced that now already the long-awaited messianic banquet had begun (Luke 14:15–24).’
On the other hand, much of Jesus’ teaching does refer to the future kingdom. Stein summarises: ‘In the Lord’s prayer we pray “Your kingdom come” (Luke 11:2), and the kingdom must as a result be future. Jesus’ saying that “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of God” must also refer to a future event, for he continues “Many will say to me on that day” (Matt. 7:21–23). Jesus’ institution of the Last Supper also looks forward to “that day when I [Jesus] drink it anew in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:25). Other passages associate the coming of the kingdom of God with the final judgment (Matt. 5:19–20; 8:11–12; 25:31–46; Luke 13:22–30).’
Understood, not geographically as a territory, but dynamically as ‘the rule of God’, we begin to see how the kingdom can be both present and future. God’s reign has begun, but has yet to be consummated.
The kingdom has arrived: ‘In Jesus’ coming Satan has been defeated (Luke 10:18; 11:20–22), the outcasts of Israel are being gathered as predicted (Mark 2:15–16; Luke 14:15–24), the Old Testament promises are fulfilled (Luke 10:23–24), the resurrection of the dead has begun (1 Cor. 15:20), a new covenant has been inaugurated (1 Cor. 11:25), the promised Spirit has come as the prophets foretold (Mark 1:8).’
The kingdom is yet to be consummated: ‘The coming of the Son of Man, the final resurrection, faith turning to sight, are “not yet.” The kingdom of God is both now and not yet. Thus the kingdom of God is “realized” and present in one sense, and yet “consistent” and future in another. This is not a contradiction, but simply the nature of the kingdom. The kingdom has come in fulfillment of the Old Testament promises. A new covenant has been established. But its final manifestation and consummation lie in the future. Until then we are to be good and faithful servants (Luke 19:11–27).’
Implications. If we over-emphasise the present kingdom, then we run the risk of optimistic triumphalism. We may come to expect all diseases to be healed, all demons to flee, all difficulties and setbacks to disappear. But to do so would be to ignore Jesus’ about cross-bearing, suffering, persecution, and the need to endure till the end. On the other hand, a one-sided stress on the future consummation of the kingdom may lead to defeatism and despair and a neglect of God’s many gifts and empowerments.
We must keep the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’ in tension. We have tasted the future glory, but it is yet to be fully revealed, 1 Pet 5:1.
Based on R.H. Stein, Evangelical Dicitonary of Biblical Theology, art. Kingdom of God.
The scope of the kingdom
‘The Old Testament law and prophets addressed every aspect of life, social institutions as well as social conditions and individual conduct. Jesus spoke about family problems and economic problems, and about political as well as ecclesiastical concerns. He blessed people’s lives with the word “peace”, shalom, the expectation of a joyous peace with justice and compassion for all, and when John the Baptist asked if he was indeed the Messiah, Jesus pointed to the benefits of the kingdom he had already bestowed (Mt 11:2-6). The apostles wrote about our responsibilities in economic and political matters as well as in family and church, and the early church well understood what this implied for its life as a community. Finally, the millenial hope that runs through the Bible is one of justice, peace and compassion fully actualised in the end.’ (Arthur Holmes, Contours of a World View, 174f)
Church and kingdom
What is the relationship between the church and the kingdom of God?
The kingdom of God is his rule. The church is the community over which he rules. George Eldon Ladd elaborates this distinction in the following ways:-
- The church is not the kingdom (for Jesus and the early Christians preached that the kingdom of God was near, not that the church was near, and preached the good news of the kingdom, not the good news of the church: Acts 8:12; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31).
- The kingdom creates the church (for as people enter into God’s kingdom they become joined to the human fellowship of the church).
- The church witnesses to the kingdom (for Jesus said, “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world,” Matt. 24:14).
- The church is the instrument of the kingdom (for the Holy Spirit, manifesting the power of the kingdom, works through the disciples to heal the sick and cast out demons, as he did in the ministry of Jesus: Matt. 10:8; Luke 10:17).
- The church is the custodian of the kingdom (for the church has been given the keys of the kingdom of heaven: Matt. 16:19).
(Summarised by Grudem in Systematic Theology, 863f.)
The proclamation of the kingdom
Eric Wright comments: ‘For almost a century there has been a lack of proclamation of the kingdom of God. God is more often treated as an absentee landlord that as a reigning King. The grand themes of God’s triune majesty, his glorious character, his mighty acts and his sovereign rule need heralding as the context in which the gospel gem is set. In this day of idolatrous humanism, the lie of man’s self-sufficiency and independence can only be shattered by the liberating truths of man’s utter dependence upon God for life and breath.’ (Tell the World, 46).