The Kingdom Message
Past, present, future
The Jews expected God to make his kingdom manifest when the Messiah returned and the new age was inaugurated. The age to come was to be marked by extraordinary political and economic prosperity. God’s enemies would be vanquished, Israel would be exalted as top nation, and there would be no more sickness or death. Yet rejecting the Messiah (the King), they failed to realize that this kingdom was inaugurated by Jesus. (And although it’s not always obvious, we are living in the Messianic age right now.)
Most evangelicals have adopted a view similar to the ancient Jews’, through “premillennial” theology: Jesus will return and reign on earth for 1000 years. Some even hold that Jesus must have “failed” to set up his earthly kingdom — since it is not yet visible, and sin and violence are still rampant all over the planet. Yet this is a misunderstanding.
Already, but not yet
What is the error? It’s a failure to grasp the relationship of the two ages — the present age and the age to come. The “last days” come not at the end, as the rabbis (like many modern believers) supposed, but rather in the midst of this present age. The kingdom of heaven breaks into history, causing an overlap. Or we could say that the end runs concurrently with the final phase of human history. Thus we experience both ages; the kingdom is “already, but not yet” — a familiar kingdom perspective. Please listen to this explanation if you need clarification about this paradoxical truth.
With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that the Bible speaks of the kingdom as past, present, and future. It’s always been here, it’s present today, and it will be revealed in ultimate glory at the end of history. This is also true of our Christian lives. We have already been brought into the kingdom (Col 1:13); we enjoy kingdom blessings now; and yet we pray for God one day to guide us to his heavenly kingdom (2 Tim 4:18; 2 Pet 1:10-12).
Then what about Pentecost? Isn’t that when the kingdom came? In one sense, yes, it did “come” at Pentecost, or was made manifest. Yet it has always been here. This may help. In Exodus 19:5-6 God makes Israel to be a kingdom of priests. The kingdom came at Sinai — even though God was already ruling as King. And he did the same for us (Rev 1:5-6)! The kingdom came, even though it was already there. (Back to “already, but not yet.”)
Kingdom in the New Testament
The coming of God’s kingdom is a major theme in the O.T. prophets (e.g. Mal 3:1; 4:5), as well as in the Gospels (e.g. Matt 3:2; 4:17; 10:7). This kingdom is not political (John 6:15; 18:36), nor is it visible (Luke 17:20-21). It is entered spiritually (John 3:3,5,7). As more and more embrace the message of the good news, the kingdom grows (Matt 13:31-33). (Click for clarification about a commonly misinterpreted kingdom passage.)
Jesus came to this earth. Since he’s the king, his reign (kingdom) naturally accompanied him. Although in some sense God’s people have always been under his kingship, only now under the new covenant are we “in the kingdom” (Matt 11:11). We enjoy the indwelling Holy Spirit, a better covenant, and many other aspects of kingdom life that were unavailable before the death, resurrection, ascension, and accession of Christ. Don’t miss the point: As a church we help each other to live and proclaim the kingdom life.
What, not visible?
Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:20-21). This means:
- It is an exercise in futility to monitor political and meteorological events in an attempt to predict God’s final intervention in the world.
- Though its effects are powerful, the presence of the kingdom is subtle. The fanfare of those who equate large numbers and decibels with God’s kingdom is misguided.
- The so-called “millennium,” derived from an overly literal reading of Rev 20:4-6, must not be construed in a way that conflicts with the teaching of Jesus that the kingdom is invisible. Rather, this figurative number symbolizes the victory of Jesus’ redemptive death and the power of his reign.
- No institution, no group can be identified with the kingdom.
- First and foremost, the king has a claim over our lives 24/7. He isn’t our sovereign at church; he’s on the throne continuously. We shouldn’t procrastinate or plan to give God our all once Christ returns to reign. He’s already reigning (Rev 19:6)! Since we are living in the final age of history, obeying the Lord is a matter of utmost urgency.
- The kingdom (in the sense of God’s rule) is where God’s will is done, a sphere always increasing as the sovereignty of God gains universal acceptance. Our planet is under enemy rule; we are the advance troops sent to prepare the way for the Messiah. Working together with Christ, we are helping to create pockets of resistance where His will is done. We answer ultimately not to the governors of this world, but to a higher power.
- The kingdom isn’t the church. (Click for a full explanation.) It would be more accurate to say that the church is part of the kingdom, or that it reflects the kingdom. In one sense the church is the kingdom — just as Jesus is God — yet to leave it at that is to invite confusion, since we don’t mean that the church is the entire kingdom, any more than we mean that Jesus is the Father, or the entire Trinity.
- We are ambassadors of the kingdom of heaven. Ambassadors reside in a foreign country, representing their own nation. So too Christians are foreigners in the world, representing a different government than the one in charge where we live.
- A whole set of implications of the doctrine of the Kingdom is political — the subject of next week’s issue.
I’d like to leave you with one parting thought. Currently there are two kingdoms: the dominion of darkness, led by the Prince of this World, and the kingdom of God’s Son (Col 1:13). And yet Paul teaches that ultimately God will be “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). It sounds as if there will be only one kingdom for all eternity. (You mean Satan doesn’t rule his subjects forever and ever? That’s right.) More on this next week.