Overview: Kingdom Come

From the last section, we saw how the Old Testament unfolded God's plan of establishing His righteous rule on earth, through the person of His Messiah. Jesus preached the Kingdom of God and declared that it was "at hand." Does this mean he announced its arrival, or that he announced its approach?

The Kingdom is Near
When Jesus began to preach, he proclaimed that the Kingdom was "nigh," or near, but not that it had arrived. This becomes clearer when we understand what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God. In the first article in this section, we see that he did not change the meaning of the Kingdom when he declared it was near. He announced that he himself was the promised Messiah, and called on people to repent and believe the Gospel.  He also declared that the Kingdom as promised to Israel would be taken away from them and given to others.

There is great emphasis throughout the New Testament on the importance of believing who Jesus was. Everything about who he was pointed to his fulfillment of the prophecies about the coming ruler of a restored kingdom. The titles attributed to him provide a strong link with those prophecies. Messiah, Christ, Son of God, Son of Man, all refer to concepts that were foretold by the Old Testament Prophets.

Although God should indeed rule in our hearts, Jesus didn't preach about the Kingdom of God as being God's rule in our hearts, but spoke of the time coming when the Son of Man would come in glory to judge the world. He used parallel phrases such as "in the Kingdom," "Kingdom coming," and "inheriting the Kingdom," all referring to the same thing, and they are also equivalent to entering "eternal life" as opposed to entering the "lake of fire." That future life would be because of resurrection. Considering all these various phrases together shows that he was speaking of a future reality.

The word "eternal" is the Greek word aionios which literally means age-lasting. The phrase "eternal life" literally means "life in the age to come." It refers to the coming age (aion) which is contrasted with the present evil age. The whole message that was foretold in the Prophets and confirmed by Jesus is that a new age is coming when everything wrong with the world will be made right.

Mysteries of the Kingdom
The Kingdom did not appear as expected, however. Jesus did not overthrow Rome or restore the kingdom to Israel. The Jews concluded that he must not have been the Messiah. On the other hand, many Christians have concluded that he must not have really meant a literal kingdom. But there is a third alternative that is often overlooked. Jesus did not change the meaning of the Kingdom of God or deny that it would involve the Son of Man coming to reign on earth.
But he revealed that there was to be an interim period between his first and second coming.

The second article in this section deals with this interim period, as well as other aspects of the Kingdom that were not known before Jesus revealed them. He called them the "Mysteries of the Kingdom" and spoke of them in parables. It was given to his disciples to know these mysteries, while the general public could not see them. The Old Testament often spoke in the same context about things that would happen in his first and second coming, with no indication of a gap of time. Jesus revealed to his disciples that there would be a delay before he set up the Kingdom.

One of the main reasons for the delay, which even the disciples did not understand at first, was that Jesus had to die in order to pay for the sins of mankind. He began to explain it after his resurrection, but it was only in the later New Testament writings, especially those of Paul, that the full understanding was given.

Jesus also described, in his parables, various aspects of the period between his first coming and the setting up of the Kingdom at his second coming. Other mysteries included the expansion of the promises to include the whole world, not just Israel. While it was known that Gentiles would be blessed through Israel, it was not known that they would be able to be fellow heirs and members of the same body, the Church.

The New Covenant
Jesus is called the Mediator of the New Covenant in Hebrews. A covenant is an agreement, and the Old Covenant involved a system of sacrifices and offerings for sin. They foreshadowed the ultimate sacrifice to come, and with his blood, Jesus ratified a New Covenant. At the Last Supper he told his disciples that
he was making a covenant with them to give them the Kingdom.

The third article in this section shows the background of the New Covenant. God had promised in several of the Prophets that he would make a new covenant, in which He would put His words on the lips of His people and His law in their hearts, so that they would walk in His ways. He promised to pour out His spirit upon them in the last days. This New Covenant will be fulfilled when Jesus Christ returns. Until then, we have been made heirs but have not yet received the inheritance. But in the meantime we have a "token" or "down-payment" of the holy spirit.

In Anticipation
Ever since Jesus Christ's first coming,
the period of anticipation and preparation for the Kingdom has been in effect. While the Kingdom has not begun yet, it is "present" in the sense that the New Covenant has been ratified, the good news and the promises of the Kingdom are proclaimed, and the power and authority of the Kingdom are seen in a foretaste.

The fourth article in this section examines the relatively few Scriptures that speak of the Kingdom being present in some sense. Misunderstood quotes such as "the Kingdom of God is within you" and "my Kingdom is not of this world" are frequently taken to mean that the Kingdom had indeed arrived, but in a different form than foretold by the Prophets. Examining the Scriptures closely, however, shows that the Kingdom is only present now in the sense of a period of preparation, anticipation, or a preview of what is to come, as illustrated by the parables.

The Kingdom Redefined
Since the Kingdom didn't come to pass immediately, and the Hebrew foundation was gradually lost, various theories have been put forth which redefine the Kingdom. The fifth article in this section examines them historically. After the Apostles died, and more and more Gentiles became Christians, Gentile thinking began to dominate the Church. As a result, more emphasis was placed on what happens to the dead, and so
preparation for heaven at death replaced anticipation of the Kingdom on earth. Under the influence of Apologists such as Origen and Augustine, the Church came to be seen as the figurative fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. After the Reformation, a more individual understanding became popular among Protestants, seeing the Kingdom of God as God's reign in the believer's heart.

These changes came about due to the reasoning that if Jesus had indeed meant a literal Kingdom, he would seem to have been wrong when he said that it was "at hand" so long ago. Much is made of Jesus' supposed belief that his return would be in the lifetime of his disciples, but in fact he told them he did not know when he was going to return. Only a few verses seem to support the idea that the Kingdom was fulfilled in the generation to which he spoke, and these are dealt with in the article. The majority of verses are clear about the eschatological (end times) nature of the Kingdom of God.

Besides, if the definition of the Kingdom of God had changed, somewhere the change would have to have been noted. But nowhere in the New Testament is such a change mentioned. It does speak of the superiority of the New Covenant over the old, and of the spirit over the flesh when it comes to guidance. But nothing indicates a replacement of the literal Kingdom with a figurative one. Quite the contrary, there are many references throughout the New Testament to our being heirs, to our inheritance, to our calling, to our hope, and to the return of Christ to earth.

In the nineteenth century, the Adventist Movement in America revived the idea of Jesus returning physically to earth to reign. Even after the unfortunate error of attempting to set dates, many still held to the belief that Jesus spoke of a literal reign on earth. In the twentieth century, more and more Bible scholars have come to see the Kingdom Gospel in its most literal interpretation.

Only For Israel?
The Dispensational system of interpretation, also developed in the nineteenth century, presents the Kingdom of God as something that will be literal on earth, but only pertaining to Israel. The sixth article in this section examines this view of the Kingdom and shows why it does not fit with the Scriptures. Romans 9-11 illustrate how
the Gentiles are grafted onto the tree of faith, and partake of the same root as Israel. This understanding is a balance between the two extremes of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology.

The Kingdom of God will ultimately come to pass and bring to an end this present age. But in the meantime we live in light of the coming Kingdom, and our lives are changed by that Gospel. This is the subject of the next section.

Mark Clarke
E-mail: mclarke@godskingdomfirst.org