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.
There are a few verses which are often taken to mean that the Kingdom had indeed arrived, but in a different form than that foretold by the Prophets. Perhaps no verse is more frequently used this way than Luke 17:21. It is often thought that the idea of an earthly kingdom was carnal and spiritually immature, and that Jesus was correcting that wrong thinking when he said, "The Kingdom of God is within you." But let's look at where he said that.
First of all, the wording in the KJV is an unfortunately poor translation. The words for "within you" can also be translated "among you" or "in your midst" and are rendered as such in several other English versions of the Bible. In this passage Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees who were constantly against everything he was doing, and whom he called children of the Devil. If he meant to say "the kingdom is within you," he would certainly not have said it to the Pharisees. He was actually referring to the fact that the spirit and power of the Kingdom were among them for all to see. He couldn't have been suddenly changing the definition of the Kingdom to an “inward” one, as that would contradict the many Scriptures in which he clearly described the coming of the Kingdom as a literal, future event – including the verses immediately following this passage. Consider this wording, from the NASB.
Jesus spoke of the coming of the Son of Man in his day to judge the world, in the very same context in which he said the Kingdom of God is among them. Therefore, he could not have been redefining the Kingdom as a "kingdom of the heart" instead of a literal future kingdom, as many have suggested.
Jesus had instructed his disciples to heal the sick, and to say to them, "the kingdom of God is come nigh unto you" (Luke 10:8-11). He had told them to say that the kingdom was near, as he had declared at the beginning of his ministry. This proclamation of the Kingdom and demonstration of its power by Jesus and his disciples are what he referred to when he said, "the Kingdom of God is in your midst." Though the Pharisees didn't believe it, the King was in their midst and the Kingdom's power was observed.
Another verse that is used to support the idea of a non-literal kingdom having arrived is John 18:36. Jesus tells Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence." As seen in What Is the Gospel? when the Kingdom is called "heavenly" it refers to its origin, not its location. Similarly, the Kingdom being "not of this world" refers to the fact that its origin is not of this world but of God. For that reason it will not come to pass by his servants fighting for it. But that does not mean that it will not be a kingdom on earth. Far from redefining the kingdom, He admitted to being a king, and said that to that end he was born. But it would not come to pass by worldly means. "The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this" (Isaiah 9:7).
In one instance only, when Christ himself cast out demons, he said the Kingdom "is come." The people recognized his power and said, "Is not this the Son of David?" (Matthew 12:23). The Pharisees, on the other hand, thought he did it by the power of the prince of demons (the word "devils" in the KJV is daimonion, or demons). Jesus declared, "...if I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come unto you" (Matthew 12:22-28).
We saw in The New Covenant that while the promised outpouring of God's Spirit would occur at the return of Christ, in the meantime individuals could experience a foretaste. In this instance, an individual experienced the defeat of Satan's power, as a foretaste of Kingdom power. The people rightly associated Jesus' power with that of the promised King (the son of David). When John the Baptist sent messengers to ask Jesus if he was the one that was to come, Jesus' response was, "Go your way, and tell John what things ye have seen and heard; how that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the gospel is preached" (Luke 7:20-22).
This was a quote from Isaiah 35:5-6 and 61:1. The miraculous powers, and the preaching of the Gospel of the Kingdom to the poor, were the signs Jesus referred to as proof that he was the Messiah. But nobody thought the Kingdom had "come" in the sense of Messiah beginning to reign. John had not asked, "Has the Kingdom come?" He asked, "Are you the one that is to come?" The power of the kingdom was being demonstrated, as proof of who Jesus was, and as a preview of the Kingdom. The King had come, but not the Kingdom yet.
In his article, The Kingdom of God: Present or Future, Anthony Buzzard writes:
This seeming discrepancy between the announcement of the Kingdom and the fact that it did not appear is, as mentioned, one of the major reasons for the Jews' rejection of Jesus as the Messiah. Similarly, the long delay since the announcement of the Kingdom has caused some to question the validity of that announcement. But it is not necessary to redefine the Kingdom in order to solve these discrepancies. The new light revealed concerning the Mysteries of the Kingdom and the New Covenant provides the solution.
In this preliminary phase, the kingdom is "present" in a preparatory phase for a time, prior to its establishment, and certain aspects are previewed. During this time, the King is identified, and the news of the New Covenant which he made available is proclaimed. Those individuals who are heirs of the inheritance experience a foretaste of Kingdom power as they grow and receive training and preparation for their roles in ruling with Jesus the Messiah. In addition, God’s dealings with man, which were formerly focused on Israel, have shifted to the Church. The early, general signs that Jesus spoke of in his Olivet Discourse have begun, and will continue, but the end is not yet. This is why we are said to be in The Last Days. It is in this proleptic sense that any reference to a present kingdom must be understood.
A few verses speak of the kingdom as if it were present, but they are in this sense of the preparation process having begun. One such verse is Matthew 23:13, where Jesus accuses the Pharisees of "shutting up the kingdom of heaven against men" and not going in themselves or letting "them that are entering to go in." But we saw in another article how entering into the Kingdom was equivalent to entering into life in the age to come. The context speaks of the future results of the actions we take in this life. He that humbles himself shall be exalted, and vice-versa. Clearly "them that are entering" must refer to them who are in the process of preparing to enter the Kingdom.
Most of the verses where the phrase "entering the Kingdom" occurs are talking about what qualifies or doesn't qualify a person to enter into the Kingdom. One of the qualifying factors is that flesh and blood cannot enter the Kingdom (I Corinthians 15:50). Paul goes on in that context to describe how we shall be changed and put on immortality, something that he says will happen in the future. So when the Bible occasionally speaks of entering into the Kingdom or being in it in the present, clearly it cannot be talking about entering it now except proleptically, that is, in anticipation.
We read in Colossians 1:13 that we have been "translated into the Kingdom of His dear Son." However, the verse before that says that we are "meet to be partakers of the inheritance" and later the same epistle states that "of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance" (Colossians 3:24). We have become heirs, but the inheritance is still future. This is similar to the above-mentioned reference in Ephesians 2:6 to being raised and seated in the heavenlies now, although we have not yet been literally resurrected. As we saw before, Hebrews 6:4-5 tells us that those who are enlightened "have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world [aion, age] to come."
Some verses refer to the concept of the Kingdom of God, with no reference to time. These include things like seeking first the Kingdom of God, who is greatest in the Kingdom, being fit for the Kingdom, and phrases such as "of such is the Kingdom," "the Kingdom is not meat and drink," "the Kingdom is not in word but in power." These verses tell us things about the Kingdom in general, but do not say anything about whether it is present or future.
We examined several parables in Matthew 13 that taught the nature of the interim period of preparation before the Kingdom was to be established. Two other parables in that chapter should be considered.
The other parables spoke of the Gospel of the Kingdom, and the children of the Kingdom, during the interim period. These two parables, when taken out of their context, could be seen as meaning that the Kingdom had come, but was not seen and yet would grow to eventually dominate the world. This cannot be the case, however, since we are told in many places in the Bible that the return of Christ to inaugurate the Kingdom will be a cataclysmic event that would usher in the new age. It will be sudden and take the unprepared by surprise, as in the days of Noah (Matthew 24:37-39; Luke 17:26-29). Thus it cannot be what the mustard seed and the leaven, with their gradual growth and influence, are referring to.
What aspect of the Kingdom of God is currently comparable to something presently small yet gradually gaining influence? Not the actual reign of Christ, but the Gospel message about that coming reign, the call to repentance in light of it, and the influence that Gospel has on our lives. The individual growth we experience in preparation for ruling in that coming kingdom is an ongoing process that begins in this life with the belief in the Gospel and acceptance of the New Covenant. It may appear small and insignificant, but we shall see how the Gospel message can have a life-changing effect when we look at The New Birth and Holy Spirit. The next two parables in Matthew 13 – the treasure hidden in a field and the pearl of great price (verses 44-46) – are similarly about the value of the coming Kingdom, but not speaking of its having come.
It would not be wise to allow a few verses that speak of the Kingdom as present in this sense to cloud the clear understanding of the Kingdom of God from the vast majority of Scriptures. This can be seen by comparing the Scriptures and considering the small handful which speak of the Kingdom as present in some sense in light of the overall definition of the Kingdom of God. On the Gathering Data page, I have presented all the occurrences of Kingdom of God and Kingdom of Heaven, and it can be seen that the vast majority of references are referring to the literal, future reign of Messiah on earth. By comparison, only a few verses speak of any kind of present reality, and it is in the sense of a period of preparation, anticipation, or a preview of what is to come, as illustrated by the parables.
The Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels (Vol. I, pp. 530, 531) says the following about the eschatological (referring to the end times) sense of the Kingdom of God in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). The same can be said for the whole New Testament.
Similarly, the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (p. 425) has this to say:
Certainly the best way to understand what Jesus and the New Testament writers meant by "Kingdom of God" is to understand the Old Testament Foundation on which they based their preaching and teaching. While the actual phrase "Kingdom of God" is not found in the Old Testament, there are numerous passages that speak of various aspects of it. John the Baptist and Jesus called it the Kingdom of God as a brief way of encapsulating all of the prophecies of the Age to Come. And as has been pointed out, you can’t understand what they were talking about without understanding the vast amount of information given in the Old Testament. With that foundation, the New Testament becomes clearer, particularly in light of the New Covenant. As heirs of the coming Kingdom, individuals have a token or foretaste of the inheritance to come. The Kingdom of God is now anticipated and proclaimed, and will one day be a reality. It is no longer necessary to try to force a different definition onto the term that was the heart of Jesus' preaching and teaching.