The Kingdom Redefined
Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was near, but that there would be an interim period before it was fully inaugurated. The Kingdom, to him, was primarily the eschatological reign and judgment of Messiah on earth. It is in this sense that it would fulfill the promises to Abraham and David, and the many prophecies of the Day of the Lord and the coming of the Son of Man.
But Jesus taught there would be a delay between the initial declaration of the Kingdom and its inauguration. He compared it in Luke 19 (dealt with here) to a nobleman going away to a far country to receive a kingdom, and to return later. He specifically spoke this parable to correct their idea that the Kingdom would appear immediately (Luke 19:11). So the disciples knew there would be a period of time before the Lord returned, and were prepared for the possibility that it could be long. Paul can be seen to have expected it in his lifetime, when he spoke of "we which are alive and remain..." in I Thessalonians 4:15-17. But later in his life, he wrote to Timothy about his imminent death and the future reward that awaited him. (The NASB even uses the phrase “in the future” to describe the crown.)
II Timothy 4:
6 For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand.
7 I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith:
8 Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing. [see NASB]
Time went by and the Kingdom did not appear. After the Apostles died, and more and more Gentiles became Christians, Gentile thinking rather than Hebrew gradually came to dominate the Church. This had two great effects: the decrease in understanding of the Hebrew foundations of the Kingdom of Heaven, and the increase of the Greek ideas about an immortal soul and conscious existence after death.
As can be seen in the Closer Look article on the writings of the Early Church Fathers, the Kingdom was still primarily seen as an eschatological event through the mid to late second century. But some variations arose. One idea was that there would be different levels of reward: some would abide in heaven and some on earth after the resurrection. Later writers held that while the kingdom would be on earth when Christ returns, it existed now in heaven. Tertullian popularized the idea that the dead were conscious in some form of interim existence (often identified with the Greek concept of Hades, the underworld). He also held that the Millennial Kingdom on earth was only temporary, after which the earth would be destroyed and the faithful would become spirit beings and live forever in heaven.
The phrase "Kingdom of Heaven" is a particularly Hebrew phrase, used exclusively in the Gospel of Matthew. It was a way of referring to the Kingdom of God which originated from heaven (as discussed in What is the Gospel). Early Church Fathers tended to use the phrase much more frequently, and it came to mean a kingdom in heaven, which would ultimately be brought to earth.
The Pagan concept of disembodied souls going to heaven (which was gaining more and more acceptance at that time) was applied to the Bible's references to God's rule in heaven, and it was concluded that saints depart to this heavenly kingdom at death. Jesus taught us to pray, "Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." But God's will is done in heaven by the angels, not by dead saints living in a disembodied state.
Ultimately Apologists such as Origen and Augustine concluded that departed souls now in heaven will at the end of the world be reunited with their bodies, but they will be spiritual bodies and will ultimately dwell in heaven. The primary understanding of the Kingdom of God by this time was the community of those who in this life follow Christ, i.e., the Church. According to them, all the prophecies of a coming kingdom are spiritually fulfilled in the Church. A physical kingdom on earth was associated with Jewish thinking and considered ridiculous and spiritually immature. From the time of the Apologists until the Reformation, this was the dominant view regarding the Kingdom of God.
While the Bible speaks of the reign of God and the power of His Spirit being experienced in the lives of individuals, it presents this as a foretaste and an anticipation of the coming Kingdom, not its fulfillment. After teaching his disciples for 40 days things concerning the Kingdom of God, Jesus made a clear distinction between the future Kingdom of God and what would be inaugurated on Pentecost.
Notice first of all that Jesus did not correct them or reprove them for asking about the Kingdom in verse 6. I was taught in the past, and many theologians hold, that the disciples were still carnal and spiritually immature at this point because they were thinking about the political Kingdom being restored to Israel. But if you read it in context, it was a perfectly reasonable question, since the Kingdom had been the subject of Jesus' teaching from the beginning of his ministry, and especially for the 40 days since his resurrection. He did not reprove them or indicate that their question was improper, only that the times and seasons were not for them to know.
Secondly, notice that it does not say that the Kingdom would arrive "not many days hence." The Kingdom would arrive at some undisclosed future time, but in the meantime, "not many days hence," they would receive power when the holy spirit came upon them, and they would be witnesses. Clearly then, the Christian Church is not the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. As we have seen, the holy spirit is a token and a foretaste of what is to come in the future.
The position that the Church was the spiritual Kingdom of God was maintained throughout the middle ages, but was challenged at the time of the Reformation. The New Bible Dictionary describes it this way:
Since the Reformation, it has been taught more and more among Protestants that Jesus declared the Kingdom to have arrived, but that he taught his disciples the "true" understanding of the Kingdom, namely that of God's reign in one's heart. The most often quoted "proofs" are undoubtedly "the Kingdom is within you" (Luke 17:21) and "the Kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36), which we have dealt with.
In addition, another common misunderstanding that leads to the belief that the Kingdom must have been redefined is the question of when Jesus expected it to take place. If Jesus had indeed meant a political kingdom that would overthrow Israel's oppressors, he would seem to have been wrong about it being "at hand." Much is made of Jesus' supposed belief that his return would be in the lifetime of his disciples, but he told them he did not know when he was going to return (Matthew 24:36; Mark 13:32).
Nevertheless, his statement, "There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom" (Matthew 16:28; Mark 9:1) is thought to be indicating he expected to return in their lifetime. But when it is read in context, it can be seen to be a reference to the vision of the Transfiguration which occurs immediately after the statement in both gospel records in which it occurs. And his statement that, "This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled" (Matthew 24:34; Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32) is thought to refer to the literal generation alive at that time, but it can be seen to refer to this present evil generation, with regard to its moral character, especially in light of how the word "generation" is used elsewhere. (See This Generation for an in-depth examination of this subject.)
Because these verses are seen by some as indicating that the Kingdom either had come with Christ, or came soon afterward, within the lifetimes of the apostles, it is concluded that the Kingdom must have been redefined. The idea of a spiritual or figurative fulfillment of the prophecies about the Kingdom of God is quite common in Christianity today. Yet when Jesus fulfilled some of the promises as a sign that he was the Christ, and as a foreshadowing of the ultimate fulfillment, he fulfilled them literally. When John had his disciples inquire whether Jesus was the Messiah, the answer Jesus gave them 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 7:22). These signs were the proof that he was the Messiah, and they quote from Old Testament prophecies which concern the coming Kingdom.
In the same prophecies that refer to healing the blind, deaf, lame, and lepers, and raising the dead (Isaiah 35), we also read of the desert blossoming and the scorched land becoming a pool, a highway in the former wilderness on which no unclean will travel, and how "the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away." In the same prophecies that refer to preaching the gospel to the poor (Isaiah 61), we also read of the day of vengeance of our God, and of rebuilding the former desolation. God's people will have riches in their own land, and will be acknowledged among all nations. "For as the earth bringeth forth her bud, and as the garden causeth the things that are sown in it to spring forth; so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations" (Isaiah 61:11). If Jesus' miraculous signs in fulfillment of some of God's Kingdom promises (healing the blind, deaf, lame, and lepers; raising the dead; preaching the gospel to the poor) are literal, why would we conclude that the other promises, or the Kingdom itself, is figurative?
In addition, since the Kingdom of God is so clearly described in prophecy as a literal future reality, any change in its definition would have to be clearly and specifically defined in the Bible. But there is no such redefining of the Kingdom of God anywhere in the New Testament. Jesus spoke of a sense in which the Kingdom was present in anticipation and preparation (see Kingdom Mysteries and In Anticipation). But this was understanding added to the end-time prophetic understanding, not replacing it. Also, Paul dealt at length with the changes from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant (see The New Covenant and Law or Grace?). This included the understanding of our offering spiritual sacrifices, and being the temple of God made without hands. But nowhere in any of those discourses did he ever say that the Kingdom of God was now to be understood as spiritual instead of the literal, future kingdom on earth that was prophesied
The phrase "shadow of things to come" is used only three places in the New Testament, and they are referring not to all Old Testament prophecies, but specifically to the ordinances of the Old Covenant, i.e., the Mosaic Law. The Law had many aspects especially regarding sacrifices, which were foreshadows of the ultimate sacrifice that the Messiah would perform. This is discussed in Colossians and Hebrews especially. But it could not be true that everything ever promised by God in the Old Testament was fulfilled "spiritually."
God specifically promised land, descendants, and material abundance to Abraham. He specifically promised David that a descendant of his would sit on his throne for ever. He specifically promised through the Prophets the restoration of the Kingdom to Israel, when a great ruler, the Messiah, would reign over the earth from Jerusalem. He foretold of the creation of new heavens and earth, once again restoring the perfect state of His creation. He also foretold specific events leading up to the Kingdom of God, including the world kingdoms that would precede it, and the cataclysmic events that would bring this present evil age to an end, and begin the new age of restoration. All of these promises are steadfast and sure, and Jesus himself described them as literal, albeit future, realities. Only when we are told that something from the Old Testament has been redefined can we adopt a new understanding. We dare not take it upon ourselves to redefine what is clearly presented throughout Scripture.
Some have downplayed the significance of the Kingdom because it isn't mentioned by name as much in the rest of the New Testament, outside of the Synoptic Gospels. But it is mentioned in certain significant passages and tied in with other concepts, using other terminology. The epistles are addressed to people who have already accepted the Gospel of the Kingdom, and now see it from the point of view of "heirs" - a word mentioned quite frequently in the epistles. The promise that Abraham and his seed should be "the heir of the world" (not of "heaven") is referred to in Romans 4:13-14. And Christians are called heirs in Romans 8:17; Galatians 3:29; 4:1,7; Titus 3:7; Hebrews 1:14; James 2:5; I Peter 3:7.
The epistles also speak frequently of our inheritance, our calling, our hope, and the return of Christ to earth. The return of Christ is specifically referred to as his coming (parousia, arrival and personal presence), and also the appearing or revelation of Jesus Christ. In addition, Revelation 11:15 presents a vision of the future, when it proclaims those words made famous in Handel's Hallelujah Chorus, "The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever." The literal reign of Christ on earth in the future continued to be the primary meaning of the Kingdom of God throughout the New Testament. It only lost that meaning later, as we have seen.
From the Reformation until the 19th century, the Kingdom of God was considered to be a figurative term, referring either to the Church, or the reign of God in the heart. The Hebrew concept of Messiah reigning over a literal kingdom on earth was hardly spoken of, and preparation for life in heaven after death had long since replaced the hope of the return of Christ. In the 19th century, the Adventist movement in the United States revived the idea that Christ would literally return to earth to reign. People like William Miller unfortunately brought ridicule to the notion by attempting to set a date for the return of Christ. When it did not happen on the supposed date, many fell away. Nevertheless there were many others who still held to the belief that Christ would return to reign on earth, though they refrained from trying to set a date.
The first writers to bring attention to the idea in scholarly theological writings were Albert Schweitzer and Johannes Weiss. In particular, Weiss "challenged virtually every conclusion of the liberals in their quest for the historical Jesus," in the words of Dennis C. Duling. In his article, The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus (Word & World, 2/2, Luther Seminary, 1982), Duling summarizes Weiss's view:
One variation that should be mentioned is the description of the Kingdom of God as "already, but not yet." This view says that the Kingdom of God is both present and future. This is true in a sense, but can be misleading. The Kingdom is only present now in anticipation and preparation, as we have seen. It is sometimes said that the Kingdom has arrived in a partial form that is hidden from the world at large, but when Christ returns it will be "fully consummated." The Bible describes the return of Christ as the beginning of the restoration of the world, however, not a "consummation."
To a large extent, the "already/not yet" scenario is based on the idea that some Scriptures refer to the Kingdom as having come, while most speak of its coming in the future. We saw in the article In Anticipation that the few verses which speak of the Kingdom being present are in the sense of a preparation during this preliminary stage, during which the terms of the New Covenant are offered and individuals experience a foretaste. It is therefore misleading to speak of the Kingdom having arrived in a partial form, when in fact it is the message and power of the Kingdom, the preparation for the Kingdom, that has begun now, while the Kingdom itself must still be hoped for and looked forward to.
Some find it hard to accept that Jesus referred to the Kingdom as "at hand" and that in Revelation he said he was coming "quickly" (Revelation 22:12,20) when it has now been nearly 2000 years. But there are several things that must be considered. For one thing, the Greek word translated “quickly” in Revelation actually means “promptly” or “without unnecessary delay.” Other words referring to something being very close are speaking of the beginning of the seven seals, the first four of which correspond to the general signs in Matthew 24 which began then and continue today. Jesus implied these things would happen with increasing frequency, but the end would not be yet. And references to the “Last Days” also refer to this period of time, from Christ’s first coming onward. These things are dealt with in detail in Refuting Preterism and the Closer Look article, The Last Days.
But also, sometimes “soon” or “at hand” can be relative terms. Several times the Prophets declared that the Day of the LORD was "at hand" (Isaiah 13:6; Joel 1:15; 2:1; Zephaniah 1:7) and that was hundreds of years before Christ's first coming, let alone what time has passed since. So when words like that are used in the New Testament, it does not necessarily follow that it must have been fulfilled within a few years of their writing. No matter how much time has passed, we are still closer than we were. ("Now is our salvation nearer than when we believed" - Romans 13:11). God's timing is not ours. He is infinitely patient.
God is waiting patiently before He pours out His final judgment, so that as many people as possible have a chance to accept His offer of the New Covenant and inherit a place in the coming Kingdom.