The term “Kingdom of God”, though not specifically quoted in the Old Testament (other than via the imagery of a future time when, for example, “the lion would lay down with the lamb”), is nonetheless replete throughout the New Testament. Everything about Jesus’ ministry seems to have centred on his core message of the Kingdom of God.
From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17)
In a few days’ time many followers of Jesus will be celebrating an occasion when believers in our tradition (of the Churches of God) partake of a small piece of unleavened bread and take a sip of wine. The Lord’s Supper/Christian Passover is a powerful annual reminder of the love of God, and the sobering nature of the symbols of Christ’s broken body and spilled blood are not lost on those who participate. Somewhere in our revisiting of that original event, we read in Matthew, Mark and Luke alike a curious prophecy given by Jesus at this first commemorative event.
“For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” (Luke 22:18)
Jesus here anchored this inaugural event to a resumption of this commemorative imbibing when “the Kingdom of God comes.” Thus we might understand it, in this instance, that the Kingdom of God is apparently a future reality. Jesus made a promise that he would “not drink of the fruit of the vine until the Kingdom of God comes”. There is no ambiguity in Jesus’ words: the Kingdom of God as cited here is a (future) “coming” reality; it is not here yet.
Related to this future sense of the Kingdom of God are Jesus’ earlier words when he taught his followers to pray: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10) Thus theologians have wrestled with the “coming” aspect of the Kingdom of God when placed besides other scriptures that seem to indicate otherwise.
The scriptures I’m referring to here are those that, from Jesus’ specific teachings, seem to imply an already present aspect of the Kingdom of God:
“But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you.” (Matthew 12:28)
“Now when He was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:20-21)
Jesus here explicitly taught that the present reality, the immanency of the Kingdom, as some translations put it, is, “in the midst of you”. And yet, elsewhere, Jesus implied a contrasting future tense, when the “Son of Man comes” scenario.
“And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 8:11)
The apostles too wrote of the future tense of the Kingdom of God, and yet also reflected on the presence of the Kingdom in the now, today sense. For example, Peter encouraged Jesus’ followers with a sense of glorious reward at the end:
Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble; for so an entrance will be supplied to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:10-11)
And yet when Paul wrote to the believers in Colossae, he said that God has already given us entrance into the Kingdom: “He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love.” (Colossians 1:13) Thus, according to this passage, believers are already in the Kingdom.
To the faithful in Rome, Paul again conveyed a present reality of the Kingdom of God when he said that, “The kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:17) All these attributes are experienced by those in whom the Holy Spirit dwells (since the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts chapter 2). Thus the Kingdom of God is also a present reality.
Renown Christian author G.E. Ladd wrestled with this dilemma in his article “What is the Kingdom of God”. (http://gospelpedlar.com/articles/Last%20Things/kogladd.html taken from The Gospel of the Kingdom. George Eldon Ladd, Eerdmans Pub Co, Grand Rapids MI, 1959, pages 13-23) G.E. Ladd writes that if we were to consecutively list all the scriptures pertaining to the Kingdom of God, and write their intended meaning alongside, we would begin to see what could be interpreted as apparent contradictions. If the Kingdom of God is something we can enter into now, then how do we apply and understand those scriptures that suggest a future fullness of the Kingdom? Thus Ladd addresses the issue of the Kingdom as being “already… not yet”.
Bible scholar N.T. Wright asked a similar question in his book titled “How God Became King” (Harper Collins, 2011) when he dealt with the question of “What exactly is the Kingdom of God?” Wright argued that orthodox Christianity has incorrectly interpreted the Kingdom of God as simply meaning “heaven” – a place we allegedly go to when we die, and earth conversely as this place where sinners are left behind to suffer whatever. Wright asserts that the Kingdom of God isn’t a far off reality, but that the Kingdom of God and earth are purposely intersecting. Wright further says that the Kingdom of God is already significantly present in the lives of the faithful, while its fullness is still coming to this earth! (See related videos as presented by NT Wright).
Both G.E. Ladd and N.T. Wright thus have highlighted the conundrum that exists among scholars as well as the wider Christian community as to what the Kingdom of God actually means, and how we might understand it as the Bible teaches it. Both authors are correct in their preparedness to lay aside traditional biases, view the scriptures for what they are, and then attempt to ask the right questions.
When we read the parables of Jesus that convey aspects of the Kingdom of God, we are confronted with quite a few different images. We see the Kingdom of heaven in Matthew chapter 13 as beginning small as mustard seed and growing into the biggest of trees. We learn that the Kingdom is like yeast placed in bread dough; the effect is that the dough almost imperceptibly at first becomes totally permeated and transformed by it. In both these examples, the Kingdom of God is portrayed as a process towards its ultimate fulfilment. And yet, elsewhere in this same chapter we read where Jesus said of the Kingdom, “So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come forth, [and] separate the wicked from the just…” Matthew 13:49) This matter-of-fact assertion of the future, as taught by Jesus, shows a definite future fulfilment.
Discussion of the Kingdom of God must never be relegated solely as the domain of theologians, because in Matthew 6:33 Jesus exhorted his followers, as of primary importance, to: “seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness”.
If we’re to seek first the Kingdom of God, then we must have some understanding as to what it really is. We have seen that the Kingdom has a future sense of fullness and fulfilment. This is nowhere more evident than in Paul’s attestation when he wrote to the faithful in Corinth:
For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. (1 Corinthians 15:22-24)
In this passage, Paul summed up the entire scriptural record, beginning with Adam, focussing on Christ, and then finally ending with the Kingdom being delivered to God the Father.
Then, there are those scriptures that attest to the early stages of Kingdom reality as a believer may experience it. Jesus spoke of people who “enter the Kingdom of God”:
Jesus said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you.” (Matthew 21:31)
Other scriptures attest to the kinds of people who will be excluded from entrance into the Kingdom, such as the sexually immoral, covetous or the idolater. (Ephesians 5:5)
To Nicodemus, a Jewish ruler, Jesus said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3) Elsewhere, Jesus said that it was difficult for a rich man to enter the Kingdom. (Matthew 19:23)
The Kingdom of God can be defined as not just the realm of God, but more specifically the rule of God. This would imply a theocracy. When Jesus affirmed to Pilate that He was indeed King, coupled also with what he said after he was resurrected, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” (Matthew 28:18), we understand both these statements to unequivocally place Jesus as King with an authority that encompasses heaven and earth. We also understand that the Kingdom of God is an emerging reality to be lived out every day by those who obey and submit to the sovereignty of Jesus – today and into the future when “every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Jesus is Lord”. (Paraphrased from Isaiah 45:23, Romans 14:11 and Philippians 2:10-11).
Written by John Klassek
LifeSpring School of Ministry