The Kingdom Is Near
Jesus Christ announced that the Kingdom of God was "at hand." Many interpret this to mean that it had arrived. But "at hand" means "near" not "here." Jesus taught his disciples to pray, "Thy Kingdom come..." (Matthew 6:10; Luke 11:2). If it was here, why would he tell us to pray for it to come? Even at the crucifixion, Joseph of Arimathea still "waited for the Kingdom of God" (Mark 15:43; Luke 23:51). Clearly it had not arrived yet. In addition, when Jesus spoke of the signs in the heavens that would precede his coming, he said, "...When ye see these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand." (Luke 21:31). Even at that future point, the Kingdom will not have come, but will be "near" and about to come to pass.
There is a certain amount of disagreement among Bible scholars as to whether the Kingdom of God is present now or yet future. This is largely because there are some passages of Scripture which present it as a future event, while others seem to say it is a present reality, and still others which simply refer to it without indicating whether it's present or future. The error is in assuming that it must be one or the other. We shall see that there is a sense in which both present and future aspects are true. The best way to understand it is first to get straight what is meant by the term "Kingdom of God" from its Old Testament Foundation, and then examine what Jesus meant in light of that.
The first book of the New Testament, the Gospel According to Matthew, begins by saying that Jesus Christ is "the son of David, the son of Abraham" (Matthew 1:1) He is the direct descendent of two foundational figures of the Old Testament, with whom God made specific covenants: Abraham, to whom God promised land, descendents, and blessings to the whole world; and David, to whom God promised that his throne would be established forever. The promised descendent of David would also be God's Son, and the Gospel of Mark begins with "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." The first thing to be said about Jesus Christ to his mother Mary was by the angel Gabriel.
The Magi came looking for him because they knew of the prophecies of a coming king of the Jews (Matthew 2:1-12). The specific prophecy about where he would be born said that out of Bethlehem "shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel" (Matthew 2:6).
Everything about who Jesus 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. As mentioned in The Lordís Anointed, the titles "Christ" and "Messiah" both mean the same thing: the Anointed One, specifically the one anointed to be King. Jesus Christ himself claimed to be the Messiah (John 4:25-26), the anointed King to come. He frequently claimed to be the Son of God, which is a Messianic title, based on II Samuel 7:14 and Psalm 2:7.
More than any other title, Jesus referred to himself as the Son of Man. The term "son of man" literally means a man, and is used as such in a number of places in the Old Testament, referring to other men, especially the prophet Ezekiel. But the title of "The Son of Man" comes from Daniel and refers to the man to whom was given "dominion, and glory, and a kingdom." It is a title that is closely linked to the Messiah's rule of God's Kingdom.
Jesus frequently referred to the Son of Man coming in his glory. At that time he would come with his angels and be glorified. He would reign in his kingdom, and judge the world. Then the righteous would inherit the Kingdom of God.
When Jesus preached about the coming Kingdom of God, he was not talking about the rule of God in people's hearts. He was referring to the specific time foretold by the Prophets when the Messiah, the Son of Man, would judge, or rule over the world and reign in God's Kingdom. He would not only rule Israel, but the whole world, including Gentiles (Matthew 12:18, quoted from Isaiah 42:1; see also Acts 17:31). He is given authority to judge because he is the Son of Man, according to John 5:27. He is given judgment over the whole world, even power of life or death, and that power is committed to him by God (John 5:18-30). This judgment is part of his being the Messiah, the coming king.
We saw in What is the Gospel? that the overall theme of his preaching and teaching was the Kingdom of God. When he began his preaching ministry, he announced that it was "at hand" or "near" and called on people to repent and believe the Gospel (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:14-15). What he preached about that Kingdom was in line with the Old Testament Prophecies.
He didn't go into a lot of detail about what he meant by the Kingdom of God, because the Jews at that time knew what was involved. They knew that the Hebrew Prophets foretold a time when Israel would be restored to their land, when the coming Messiah would judge the world and rule in righteousness, when evil and wickedness would be done away with, when there would be no more war, and when there would be peace and prosperity for all who worshipped and obeyed the One True God. He did not need to explain it; he simply proclaimed that the long awaited Kingdom of God was "at hand" and that he himself was the Messiah, the one whom God had anointed to be King of the Kingdom. This is also why today one can easily miss what Jesus meant, without a knowledge of the Old Testament Foundation of the Kingdom Gospel.
The phrase "in the Kingdom" is always presented as something that will happen in the future. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will sit down "in the Kingdom" (Matthew 8:11) and Jesus said he would not eat the Passover again until it is fulfilled "in the Kingdom" which is parallel with the Kingdom "coming."
So being "in the kingdom" equals "the kingdom coming" and is a future event. James and John understood it to mean Christ's future reign when they asked for special positions in the kingdom. The parallel records in Matthew 20:21 and Mark 10:35-37 show that "in thy glory" is equivalent to "in thy Kingdom." And in Matthew 25, the "Son of Man coming in his glory" is linked with "inheriting the Kingdom."
All these parallel references demonstrate that the Kingdom of God is a future event, to which the disciples looked forward. Jesus spoke of reigning in the kingdom, and offered his followers a chance to reign with him. This was also part of what had been foretold. Isaiah referred to that when he said, "Behold, a king shall reign in righteousness, and princes shall rule in judgment" (Isaiah 32:1). There are also references to "thrones of judgment, thrones of the house of David" in Psalm 122:5, and to the judges being restored "as at the first" in Isaiah 1:26. After the above quote about the Son of Man, Daniel 7 goes on to say, "But the saints of the most High shall take the kingdom, and possess the kingdom for ever, even for ever and ever" (Daniel 7:18). In light of this, Jesus spoke of the disciples sharing in his reign.
Notice that being in the kingdom is associated with having everlasting life. Mark 9:43 defines the two possible destinies of man: enter into life or enter into "hell" (Greek, gehenna, or the lake of fire - a future place of destruction, not to be confused with hades, the state of the dead to which everyone goes when they die). Verse 47 of the same chapter rephrases the choice as either entering into the Kingdom of God or entering into hell (gehenna) fire. So entering the Kingdom of God is equivalent to entering into life, as opposed to the lake of fire (gehenna), which is the "second death" (Revelation 20:14; 21:8). Both these destinations are in the future.
The Gospel of the Kingdom of God is clearly dominant in the synoptic Gospels. John's Gospel doesn't use the phrase Kingdom of God more than a couple of times, but frequently refers to "everlasting" or "eternal" life. Jesus specifically spoke of people having everlasting or eternal life, not as disembodied souls in heaven, but because he would raise them up at the last day, if they believed him and ate "the bread from heaven" (John 6:22-59). The idea of resurrection was not new. Daniel had referred to the time when Israel would be delivered, saying, "And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt" (Daniel 12:2). The Pharisees believed in the resurrection, but the Sadducees did not, and tried to challenge Jesus in Matthew 22. But Jesus spoke of eternal life as being the result of resurrection, in connection with the good news of the coming Kingdom. He spoke of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob being in the Kingdom of God, and many coming from the east and west to sit with them (Matthew 8:11; Luke 13:28-29), which means they would have to be resurrected. Notice he said nothing about going to heaven.
While there are a few passages that speak of the Kingdom of God as being present in some sense (which we will deal with in another article), most often when Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God, he meant the future time when he would rule over the nations on a restored earth. This period of time would be preceded by God's cataclysmic intervention (Matthew 24:27-31; Mark 13:19-27; Luke 17:24-37; 21:20-28), ushering in a new age. John equates it with "eternity" and "eternal life" but those words can be misleading in English, because we are accustomed to thinking of eternity being something "beyond time" just as we tend to think of heaven as a "realm beyond earth." But such thinking is foreign to the Bible.
There are two Greek words translated "world" in the New Testament - one is kosmos which refers to the ordered creation. The other word is aion from which we get our English word "eon." This word refers not to place but to time. It is literally an "age" which is a better translation than "world," and is so rendered in some of the more modern English versions.
When the use of this word is traced through the Bible, we find that it speaks of two "ages." One is the present evil age (Galatians 1:4), and the other is the Age to Come. Matthew 12:32 refers to the entire time of man's existence, and describes it as including "this age, and the age to come." Paul also refers to this age and "that which is to come" in Ephesians 1:21 (where the Greek word for "world" in the KJV is aion). In Mark 10:29-30 Jesus refers to having blessings with persecutions in this "time" (kairos) and eternal life in the age (aion) to come, showing that it is contrasting two periods of time. Jesus didn't speak of rewards in another "place" but in another "time."
Satan is called the god of this age in II Corinthians 4:4. The word for "course" in Ephesians 2:2 is aion, and "world" is kosmos. "And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins; Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course (aion, age) of this world (kosmos), according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience." This describes the nature of this current evil age as worldly and devilish rather than godly. In the parable of the sower, the cares of this age choke the Word (Matthew 13:22).
This age is destined to end, and in the Age to Come, Messiah will rule with God's authority, and there will at last be peace on earth. The transition from this age to the next is clearly defined in the Bible. Matthew 24:3 identifies the coming of Christ with the end of this age, while Luke 20:34-36 connects the resurrection from the dead with the future age.
Taken together with the Old Testament prophecies, we can see that the present age will come to an end when Christ returns and the dead are raised, and then the next age, in which Christ reigns, will begin. This cataclysmic change from the present age to the next is what the Old Testament called "the Day of the Lord," to which the New Testament also refers (I Corinthians 5:5; II Corinthians 1:14; I Thessalonians 5:2; II Peter 3:10).
The adjective form derived from the root aion is also an important word to understand. It is aionios and is most often translated either "eternal" or "everlasting." But this does not give a clear understanding of its meaning. Being from the root aion, it literally means "age-lasting" (according to Young's) or "belonging to the age" (according to Bullingerís). Eternal life is literally "life in the age to come" and refers to life in God's Kingdom that is coming when this present evil age is over. It is only then that we will gain immortality. Until then those that have died sleep in the dust of the ground (Daniel 12:2).
The parable of the nobleman in Luke 19 clearly illustrates the fact that the Kingdom involves Messiah and his saints ruling over an earthly kingdom, as well as the fact that it would not happen immediately.
The nobleman going away to receive the kingdom and then returning illustrates a kingdom that had not come yet, but would come after a period of time, when the nobleman returned. In addition, the returning nobleman rewarded the faithful servants with authority over cities. Jesus offered his followers not only life in the age to come but also the chance to rule with him in his Kingdom (Daniel 7:22,25,27; I Corinthians 6:2). This is much more real a hope than "going to heaven." One can see how it motivated the first century believers to give their all. One can also see why Satan will do anything to keep this truth from being known. Man was created to live on earth, and when God's Kingdom is fulfilled, God will finally get what He created man for in the first place. He has always wanted people to love and worship Him and to rule the earth on His behalf. As followers of Jesus the Messiah, we can be a part of that. This is the Good News of the Kingdom.