In this most succinct summary of the Kingdom of God I will begin by making what I believe is a necessary distinction in the biblical concept of Kingdom (reign/realm). With this distinction made, another follows—the Kingdom of God in its broad sense and in its narrow sense, both of which are explicitly set forth in the OT witness and necessary for a sound understanding of the NT concept of the Kingdom. Perhaps the most controversial issue, and most pertinent to our discussion, is the nature of the Kingdom of God in the NT. Thus, the foci of this entry will surround the question of the Kingdom of God in the Christian era, concluding with the recognition that the current manifestation of the Kingdom of God is one reality logically speaking, yet has a duality in its chronological realization in human history.
I. Reign and Realm and the Biblical Concept of Kingdom
(A) The reign of God is intrinsic to the biblical definition of the Person of God. This is to say, that to speak of the Triune God of the scriptures is to explicitly affirm the absolute, personal reign, rule and Lordship of God, qualities that are proper only to him by virtue of who he has revealed himself to be. Bound up in the sheer Godhood of the Triune God is what John Frame calls the triad of Lordship attributes: authority, control and presence. Each one of these perfections presupposes and implies the other. Thus, the scriptures reveal the God who is completely free to do as he pleases (Ps 115:3), constrained only by the counsel of his own determinative, all-wise counsel and will (Eph 1:11). Here in lies God’s transcendence: his reign, recognized by man in his current rule, was exercised before time and space were (Eph 1:4). It should be clear from this that as the scriptures speak of God himself, his Kingdom reign is presupposed. In this sense every revelation in creation and scripture and in the human constitution testifies to and reflects the Reign/Kingdom of the absolute—personal God of the Bible. Nevertheless, this is not a mere abstraction; every reign has its realm.
(B) The realm of God’s kingdom reign extends to all that is. The act of creation by divine fiat demonstrates that while God is transcendent (wholly other), he is also immanent (present in his creation). The Triune God’s act of creation is not the means of God realizing his reign, but the product of it. The opening chapters of Genesis present God’s absolute reign through the submissive obedience of even the most fundamental elements of the physical universe to his all-authoritative Word (e.g. space, matter, motion, light, etc.). For such entities as these, disobedience to God’s reign would be to not exist. The spiritual realm is no less subordinated to or exempt from God’s authority, control, and presence (e.g. Job 1:6ff).
II. Kingdom—the Broad and Narrow Meanings
(A) The broad sense of the Kingdom of God is understood as God’s rule over his creation through providence. This point was anticipated in the last section (I. B: “Realm”). The creation of God’s kingdom (i.e. all that is) is only the half of his Kingly reign. Once the kingdom was established as an expression of his reign, it is then completely dependent upon its King for its continued existence and sustention (Col 1:16—17; Heb 1:3b). The broad sense of God’s kingdom rule is perhaps best expressed in Ps 103:19, there it is said, “The LORD has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.” Notice here, in the broad sense of the Kingdom of God, that “kingdom” is paralleled with “throne,” thus denoting God’s kingdom reign through his exercising, or expressing, that reign “over all,” his kingdom realm. The broad sense of the Kingdom of God then is his absolute, uninterrupted, unchallenged, authoritative reign over all his creation.
(B) The narrow sense of the Kingdom of God is that in which God in his sovereign power chooses to create and rule a people for his redemptive purposes. In the OT we find that God sovereignly called Abraham out of the land of Ur (from his paganism, cf. Josh 24:2) and chose him to create a special people for himself; the nation of Israel, through which God would meet out his promise to Abraham to bless all the nations (Ex 3; 6; Gen 15). Through the nation of Israel God began to restore what man lost in Adam at the fall. Under the Old Covenant this historical/redemptive process was largely ethnically and geographically limited to Israel and the land of Canaan. Also, under both the era of the Judges and the Davidic dynasty Israel continually rebelled against Yahweh, her suzerain King. Thus, King Yahweh caused his people to live in captivity, under the reign of the oppressive kingdoms that they found so attractive. Nevertheless, Israel’s flagrant rebellion was not to thwart God’s plan for his Kingdom being realized and fulfilled. Yahweh’s prophets intensified the call to national repentance and the promise of the Servant of Yahweh; the messianic ruler who would come to establish a kingdom of righteousness, justice, salvation and peace. The time was rapidly approaching when Yahweh’s great redemptive act in Israel’s Exodus from bondage in Egypt was about be realized in its antitype—the global Exodus that would occur in the person of Jesus Christ.
III. The Kingdom of God in the New Testament
(A) The first observation to be made of the Kingdom of God in the NT is the absence of any attempt to define it. The Baptist (Mt 3:2), Jesus (4:17), and the fledgling Apostles/disciples (10:7) all preached the same message concerning the Kingdom, it was near and repentance was required for entering it. This complete lack of definition as to exactly what was meant by “Kingdom of God/Heaven” clues us in on the idea that there was a general consensus as to what was intended by the terms, an agreed definition both in the preaching and the hearing. Hence, Jesus did not arrive in order to set up a new or different kind of kingdom; he was claiming to bring about the fulfillment of that to which the entire drama of the OT pointed to and foreshadowed. Although the OT does not have an exact counterpart to the phrase “The Kingdom of God,” the basic idea of what that was appears to be assumed by Jesus and the Evangels.
(B) The Kingdom of God came, interrupting “this present age,” with the incarnation, life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. In Mt 12:22—32, at the so-called “Beelzebul controversy,” the Pharisees accuse Jesus of being in league with Satan. They, in their desperate attempt to discredit (although they never denied) the signs and wonders of Jesus’ ministry, they contended that Jesus drew his power to cast out demons from the prince of demons himself. After Jesus demonstrates the contradictory nature of their argument, he goes on to say that if it is not the power of Satan, then, by necessity it is by the Spirit of God (per Mt) [Finger of God (per Lk)] that he is working. With that being the case, “then the Kingdom of God has come upon them.” After 1400 years of divine revelation and promises of the Kingdom’s coming advent the Jews of Jesus’ day were caught of guard through their misconceptions and carnal understanding as to nature of the Kingdom; they missed it. Jesus’ presence meant Kingdom presence.
(C) The Kingdom of God, having come with the Person of Jesus, is then a present spiritual reality (realm) to which one must to enter. The exact nature of the Kingdom today is met with divergent interpretations in the field of theological inquiry; however, to simply turn to the scriptures for an answer is to find that the word itself offers no less of a complexity of answers. One such answer is that the Kingdom realm has been present since Jesus’ first advent and there is a sense of urgency to enter that Kingdom now (Mt 21:31). The necessary precondition to entering the present spiritual reality of the Kingdom is the new birth (Jn 3:3, 5). It is something that must be received (Mk 10:15). It promises the blessing of righteousness, joy, and peace in and through the Holy Spirit (Rom 14:17). Although, with the Kingdom’s blessings comes the promise of tribulations (Acts 14:22). The Kingdom’s present global expansion was borne with the humble beginnings likened to that of a seed (Mt 13:1—23), but comparatively speaking, that seed will become the mightiest of trees (vv.31—32). The Kingdom will permeate and spread like leaven spreads through a lump of dough (v.33). At least some of the NT witness reveals that there is a present, already, realized, or inaugurated, as it were, aspect to the Kingdom of God. This began in the life, ministry, death, resurrection and exaltation of Christ Jesus, and has its continuation in the life of the Kingdom community, Jesus’ disciples, his body, the Church. For all the organic metaphors and spiritual realities that Jesus used to describe the present nature of the Kingdom, he also indicates that there is a point of Kingdom completion, it is moving to a point of maturity—to a consummation.
(D) The NT also speaks of a future consummation of the Kingdom of God at the end of the age. The paradoxical tension of the Kingdom lies in the fact that Jesus and the Apostles describe it as not merely a spiritual reality (albeit, not a completely ahistorical, invisible realm) in the present, but also a future realm of complete fullness. It is something that the saints will inherit at Jesus’ Second Advent (Mt 25:34); and while there is certainly blessings in the present realm of the Kingdom, the future aspect promises even immortality (I Cor 15:50ff). Surely our enjoying table talk with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a Kingdom reality that is yet to happen (Mt 8:11). The coming facet of the Kingdom will coercively subdue the worldly kingdom to the reign of God and Christ, and this reign will see no end; it is an eternal Kingdom (Rev 11:15; cf. Dan 2:44). At the end of this age (in the age to come) God’s reign (his Personal-absolute, unchallenged right to rule over his redeemed creatures) will be fully realized in every realm. The consummation promises a time when God’s Kingdom reign and realm will be in perfect harmony, as will the broad and narrow sense of the Kingdom. The whole creation (broad sense) will be redeemed (narrow sense) and reigned (reign) personally, by God, in his presence (realm).
In Summary, the Kingdom of God is something Christians are to seek earnestly (Mt 6:33). It is also something that must be received (Mk 10:15). What then is it that one is to seek, to receive? Is it the church, Heaven, something tangible? No. It is God’s righteousness, rule and absolute reign over every realm of our lives. The one who is experiencing this must then pray for the point in human history when all creation is subjected to this same reality in holistic perfection (Mt 6:10).
The testimony of the scriptures unashamedly posits a present, realized realm or sphere of the Kingdom, inaugurated during Christ’s first coming, growing and continuing in the lives of his disciples; the organic Kingdom community. The Word also parallels these statements with a future aspect to the Kingdom which is yet to be fulfilled at the end of the age. To absolutize either side (historicist vs. futurist) of what is revealed about the already—not yet tension of the Kingdom does violence to what Jesus and the Apostles have said concerning it. The Kingdom of God has, in one sense, absolute unity ontologically speaking—its essential nature is the absolute reign of God in Christ over his entire royal realm. However, the way in which this is to be achieved in God’s eternal plan for his creation has a sense of duality economically speaking—the church, the Kingdom community, is the spiritual archetype left here in this world/age that points forward to, like a sign post in time, the world/age to come.
I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.
St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4
St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4