The teaching of the Bible regarding The Kingdom of God is perhaps some of the most complex, mysterious, beautiful and awe inspiring realities. This essay will be but a gnat scratching on the surface of the moon in attempting to describe the teaching of Scripture on this topic. Yet it is also a matter of great importance because it is deeply connected to the gospel as taught by Jesus and the apostles. The sections of this essay will be excessively brief as my goal is to introduce rather than rigorously present all the issues. For those interested there is a short and accessible book by the late George Eldon Ladd entitled The Gospel of the Kingdom which I recommend.
The Kingdom Defined-Rule and Reign
When we hear the word Kingdom today we are tempted to define it in terms of a geographical realm with a castle and certain people being ruled by a monarch. At least in my kids’ fairy tale books and DVDs this is usually how it rolls out. Or if you are up on world affairs you might thing of a middle eastern monarchy such as Saudi Arabia or perhaps history buffs will think of historical western kingdoms before the advent of democratic nation states. Either way, both impressions will not help us in thinking of what the ancients meant when they spoke of the Kingdom of God. A kingdom as described in Scripture is the actual rule and reign of a King himself. Rather than a geography or a people, the kingdom is the expression of an authority and the nature of that rule. To put it very simply, the Kingdom of God is the rule and reign of God. It is his exercised rule or sovereignty, not the realm in which it is implemented.1 Additionally, there is great agreement that the Kingdom or Rule of God is one of complete justice, the eradication of sin and death and the peaceful ordering of all things by Christ our King.
So this brings to us an important question. If the Kingdom is the rule of God, is it now here with us? Or is the Kingdom a future reality coming in the time which we call “Heaven.” Our answer will be yes…and yes.
Did it already come? Still Coming?
The idea of the coming Kingdom is rife with discussions of temporality (issues of time). Did Jesus bring the Kingdom in AD 33? Is God in charge now, or is that still coming? What does the second coming of Jesus say to the reality of the Kingdom? Does the Kingdom have to do with righteous and just rule or the salvation of sinners by a holy, wrathful, loving, good and forgiving God? Additionally, is it God’s job to bring about his rule and reign on the earth, or is it our job as the church? Or both? There are so many questions associated with this. Christians throughout history have fallen on various sides of these questions and the issue is very important in many conversations today. The witness of the Bible on this is precisely the source of the struggle for it clearly teaches that the Kingdom came with Jesus in some way (i.e. Mark 1:14,15) and it is with us in our present reality (Romans 14:17). It teaches that those who believe in Jesus are moved into the Kingdom, yet at the same time there remains a dominion of darkness (Colossians 1:13,14). Our greatest mistake is to be reductionist about the Scriptures teaching, silencing some parts in favor of others. This is what Christians have done from time to time with the teaching on the Kingdom of God. A few examples.
Too Much Now
Over time many Christians see the rule of God as perfect justice for all people and creation itself. It is a state where all is made right on the earth. So they see the gospel in these terms. The good news is that there is a different life available now. We can live lives of love and justice and bring the Kingdom to the earth more fully. Liberal Christianity of the late 19th and early 20th century made this push. Today, the idea that the gospel is “the Kingdom is here now” and live that way is becoming popular among Christians flying the flag “Emergent.” The call of the gospel is to live the Kingdom way now. That is the good news brought by Jesus. This is in some sense true. Yet the casualty of “Kingdom Now” thinking is that the salvation of sinners from the wrath of God, the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus “for our sins” is lost. Many in this camp no longer teach that sin is individual, but only social. They no longer teach the reality of eternity and the right judgment of God. They no longer teach that Hell even exists but instead that our only focus should be “bringing the Kingdom” now. It you choose to believe that the Kingdom is all Now, we miss some incredibly important truths about the Later. If you like theology-you would call this over realized eschatology.
Too Much Later
On the other extreme is the teaching that the gospel is only about getting a “go to heaven card” and not a call to followership of Jesus, transformation of communities, and reflection of the saving gospel of the Kingdom in our lives today. All the focus is on the second coming of Jesus and the coming judgment and not living the way of Jesus today. If all we are to do today is get folks saved-and I do believe we have a job to call sinners to repentance and faith-we will neglect building a Kingdom culture now that reflects the reign of God. God desires for us to proclaim justice for the oppressed, to feed the hungry and to steward creation as representatives of another Kingdom. You might say that under realized eschatology ignores some very important aspects of the rule of God-NOW for the sake of thinking about the Later.
Of course all this is too simplistic-but these issues are important. The solution to this is not reductionism but to see all the teaching on the Kingdom-that it is a present in breaking reality, that it is not fully here, that it will come definitively at the second coming of Jesus as important. We must like Now and Laters, not just Now or Later. Sorry, you knew that was coming…
Now and Not Yet…
The Kingdom is Now
What we want to hold in tension is that the Kingdom very much appeared with the incarnation of Jesus, who is our covenant King. The Kingdom also expresses itself when people enter into it by repentance and faith in Jesus. When someone becomes a Christian, a follower of Jesus, for whom Christ has paid for their sins and reconciled them with God, the person very much enters the Kingdom. After the first coming of Jesus we now can be set free from the power of sin, death, Satan. All of these are thwarted-Jesus is the first fruits, the promise of our own resurrection and eternal life.
The Kingdom is Later
Yet Scripture is clear that this current age is under the dominion or rule of sin, death and Satan. Our great enemy is called the prince of the power of the air, the ruler of this world (or age) and we know very well that sin and death still hold fast on the earth. George Ladd summarizes this very well:
This age is dominated by evil, wickedness and rebellion against the will of God, while the age to come is the age of the Kingdom of God…The point is this: it is the character of this age to choke the working of the Word of God. The spirit of the age is hostile to the gospel.2
Yet, in becoming a Christian now we receive the promise and evidence of the final destruction of these things as sin looses it power over us (sanctification) and death itself is not the end for us any longer (See John 11:17-27). Finally, the second coming of Christ will fully bring the reality of the Kingdom in forever. It will be definitive. The dead will rise to immortality, evil and wickedness will be judged completely and demonic powers removed for all time. As such all things will be made new and the redemption of God in all things will arrive.
The Gospel and the Church-A Resistance Movement
In our day Jesus is still at work in the world saving sinners and adding folks to his community known as the church. In this group of people we have a counter cultural community that lives according to the gospel of the Kingdom. It proclaims good news of the death of Jesus for sin and the resurrection of Jesus for our hope. It loves others and cares about injustice and empowering the poor. The church is an in breaking of the Kingdom and this reality is proclaimed in the preaching of God’s Word and visible in the practice of the ordinances of baptism (entry sign into the Kingdom) and the Lord’s Supper (a continuing sign of the Kingdom). This community exists for the world but does not subscribe to the systems and power of the world. It is a revolution, an Inversion by which God is transforming people and extending grace into communities. We are much like a resistance force in occupied territory. Though sin, death and hell still have power, we proclaim hope through the gospel. We are a rag tag group of folks who are desiring the Lord to come and working hard for the sake of others. We hold out the gospel and call people to Jesus for their salvation. Then we walk together as a broken community giving our lives away for the sake of others. When we fail we practice and live in regular repentance and hope in the gospel because we all fall short of the glory of God. This is why we need Jesus. We cannot bring his Kingdom or deal with our sin. He does. This is why the gospel is central to our lives and mission. Once someone becomes a follower of Jesus, he is then part of the Inversion…Dallas Willard said it well:
To become a disciple of Jesus is to accept now that inversion of human distinctions that will sooner or later be forced upon everyone by the irresistible reality of his kingdom. How must we think of him to see the inversion from our present viewpoint? We must, simply, accept that he is the best and smartest man who ever lived in this world, that he is even now “the prince of the kings of the earth” (Rev 1:5). Then we heartily join his cosmic conspiracy to overcome evil with good.3
What is the Gospel of the Kingdom? It is two fold. It is to see sinners saved and involves individual salvation. Yet it also calls us to see a new society or culture formed-the church. The gospel saves us and will ultimately redeem all things. It is Christ died for our sins (1 Corinthians 15) and a uniting of all things under God (Ephesians 1.10). In our lives today we live as part of a revolution, not a fortress to keep out the world. The gospel saves you and me and makes us part of God’s restoration of all things. I’ll give the late British journalist GK Chesterton the final word.
In the upper world hell once rebelled against heaven. But in this world heaven is rebelling against hell. For the orthodox there can always be a revolution; for a revolution is a restoration. 4
Yours in the Revolution,
Reid S. Monaghan
- 1. George Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom; Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God. Grand Rapids, Mich.,: Eerdmans, 1959 20.
- 2. Ladd, 28, 29
- 3. Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy : Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, 1st ed. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), 90.
- 4. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Image Books ed. (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 113.