I always struggled to understand what ‘The Kingdom’ was growing up in the church. It sounded so abstract, medieval and ethereal to my young western ears. As an American it can be hard to grasp the idea of kings and a kingdom. Our nation was founded on a Declaration of Independence from an earthly kingdom. We were to be a nation dependent under God with autonomy from all others. I feel this desire for American autonomy has bled into our relationship with the creator as well. In American Christianity we’re use to singing songs like “I am a friend of God,” which is a correct theological truth that might get over-emphasized in certain circles over the terrifying, “our God is a consuming fire” of Heb. 12:29. We want a god who shows up on our prayerful cue to rescue us (and our human kingdoms) when we need him forgetting Ps. 115:3 that says “our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” Scripture tells us to seek his Kingdom first, and everything else like clothes and shelter will be added unto us if we’re going after God with everything.
So, What is the Kingdom?
The NT uses Kingdom of God (KOG) and Kingdom of Heaven (KOH) interchangeably. One is based in a Hebrew context, the other Greek. While scholars have widely debated the exact meaning of the Kingdom, this doesn’t mean its understanding is out of our reach. Preparing for this paper, I read two useful definitions about the Kingdom; 1) the 30,000-foot approach of George Eldon Ladd, “The Kingdom of God is basically the rule of God. It is God’s reign, the divine sovereignty in action;” and 2) the 5,000-foot approach of Patrick Schreiner “The kingdom is the King’s power over the King’s people in the King’s place.” These are concise and personally helpful, but still a little abstract for me as a pastor of people who’ve probably never picked up a theology book.
In the Old Testament ‘Kingdom’ is used 215 times, 103 of which show up as מַמְלָכָה (mamlakah), most notably used in Exod. 19:6, Deut. 17:18 and 2nd Samuel 5:12; 7:12-16. In the New Testament, βασιλεία (basileia) is used 162 times most notably in Matthew and Luke before decreasing in the Pauline writings. If our Lord and Savior’s good news had everything to do with the Kingdom, why does it seemingly disappear in later NT writings? In this summary project I will briefly survey Kingdom origins in Jesus’ Bible before briefly unpacking the ‘Kingdom for today’ in the NT gospels. The focus will then shift to Acts, Paul as well as ‘the Kingdom for tomorrow’ in Revelation.
Kingdom Beginnings in the Old Testament
“The Biblical idea of the Kingdom of God is deeply rooted in the Old Testament…”
The word Kingdom first shows up in the Gen. 10:10 table of nations in reference to a member of Noah’s line. It later shows up in Exod. 19:6 in a big way highlighting the unique ministry Israel was to hold among the nations to the world. When Adam and Eve forfeited their rights to reign, rule and subdue creation as King and Queen under God in the mountaintop garden (Gen. 1:26-28), the kingdom was corrupted. After Noah’s fall, which begins on a mountain, it’s not until Abraham’s family enters the scene in 11:27 that Kingdom hopes began to be revived. These hopes were seemingly dampened when the family was enslaved (Exod. 1) but YHWH was still shaping his kingdom people.
The seed of Abraham was preserved through captivity and led out of Egypt by Moses. When all had looked dark, hopes for God’s kingdom were revived. Moses received the law from God on a mountain in which the people were given their heavenly assignment to be a Kingdom of Priests (Exod. 19:6). “God was constructing a community, nation, through which he would reign, and his people would govern with him, bringing order to a disordered world.” The Torah was to be the lifeblood to this people, nourishing their godward roots. Ultimately, the people fail so the sacrificial system foreshadowed in Gen. is instituted in Lev. Deut.17:18-20 talks about an ideal King who would one day reign. Better kingdom days were on the horizon.
As Israel transitioned into the Land promised to them, they were able to live in the space given to them for communion with God. They were to be a light to the nations but ended up desiring to look like them (2nd Sam. 8:20). Their desire for a king wasn’t wrong but the heart behind it was. Samuel who was the last Judge and first prophet, anoints the first King of Israel. The first king Saul is a small fiasco, but God establishes a kingdom covenant through David’s line in 2nd Sam. 7. In Samuel’s prophetic writing, the future eternal kingdom of a King who would reign forever is established. Once more, exile threatened this kingdom. Isaiah writes of a coming king in the line of David (Isa. 1-39). This ruler would be a light to the nations (ch. 9) through whom the nations would be healed (ch. 53). This Spirit-anointed ruler from God will announce good news to the poor, heal, and announce freedom to the captives (Isa. 61:1-3). “The kingdom God brings is through power and a person, and for a place.” Through a symphony of voices the prophets announced that the kingdom would come through God fulfilling his covenantal promises. A better day was coming still.
So what would life in God’s Kingdom look like? “Through proverbs, songs, laments, stories, and more history,” these writings painted a picture of what things could be like when God’s wisdom was implemented at large under a good king. When Torah wisdom is implemented, people experience garden-like-flourishing and shalom. Acquiring knowledge by fearing the Lord leads to the ‘good life’ and blessing. The good king (and coming King) will be obedient to Torah and this is what success will look like. Success doesn’t mean suffering avoidance, but those who are ‘successful’ will remain steadfast in praising the Lord through suffering. “Both Esther and Daniel have pulled back the curtain of history to show that in the midst of exile, Yahweh is still preserving his people. His kingdom will be victorious in due time.” Part of the coming Israelite struggle with Jesus, and his upside-down Kingdom, came from an outwardly victorious and conquering messiah in Daniel 10. They had no idea his kingdom exaltation would come from being lifted up on a Roman torture device. Rather than killing his (their) enemies, he gets killed.
The Kingdom is at Hand
Within the NT understanding of Kingdom there includes elements of present and future dimensions; this age and the age to come. It’s the announcement of what God in Christ has done and will do. On a soteriological level, the reign of Christ means the eventual destruction of all hostile powers when he returns in the Second Coming; the last enemy of which is death (1 Cor. 15:26). The incarnation of Jesus and his inaugurated Kingdom landed behind enemy lines in contested territory. More than just abstract ideas of a spiritual realm, Jesus’ kingdom is invading the kingdom of Satan in physical ways in historic time and space as good news is announced to those who need it most. Matthew presents the King’s place, Mark presents the King’s power, Luke the King’s people and John, kingdom life. We will now explore the present nature of the Kingdom as it’s developed in the gospels, Acts and Paul.
After 400 years of prophetic silence, a lone voice cried out in the wilderness. No longer was the kingdom merely foretold. No, the command in Matt. 3:2 was to “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” John the Baptist heralded a critically important evangelistic message for both his day and now. Like Christ’s teaching on the mustard seed (Matt. 13:31), the Kingdom had small, fragile beginnings like Jesus did coming as a pitiful infant born in a dump. John’s message paved the way for Jesus’ ministry, a message in which Jesus would amplify after his period of testing in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11). The last OT prophet would later become the first Christian martyr after his time in prison. While John was arrested, Jesus preaching ministry began fulfilling the words of Isaiah in 9:2 that “…the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light…” Jesus began boldly proclaiming the KOH.
‘The kingdom’ terminology wasn’t unfamiliar language, having been used in the OT with the most mentions in Daniel. The kingdom that Jesus was proclaiming wasn’t anything like what the Israelites were expecting though. In Matt. 5, Jesus’ kingdom proclamation the: poor, distraught, meek, hungry for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers and persecuted were called blessed. In a later gospel, Luke would focus on these marginalized and broken people as they were the ones Jesus came for (Luke 4:18); Good Samaritans and forgiven sinners like Zacchaeus were welcome at the Kings table in the King’s Kingdom. Matthew’s “you have heard it said…” statements go well beyond the demands of the 613 Mosaic laws. Jesus teaches kingdom centered prayers (Matt. 6:10) and pursuit above everything else (6:33). The Kingdom was absolutely central to Jesus’ life and ministry and right out of the gate the New Testament authors declare him the King in the Davidic line; simply put, He was the kingdom. He fulfilled the way that everyone since Adam had barely tried to do, but failed. Matthew highlights the immediacy of the Kingdom and all its requirements in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus paints a picture of what it looks like for the KOH to subdue and order the space around it the way the first man, Adam, should have brought heavenly order to his surroundings. Jesus was the ‘stronger’ man in Matt. 12:29 who confronts Israel (and humanities) true enemy, and binds him. Israel thought Rome was keeping them from earthly Kingdom glory when Jesus expands the script of their brains. His binding of the ‘strong man’ to establish his Kingdom was done in a counterintuitive way. Mark highlights Jesus’ power through profound suffering and service. Jesus proclaimed himself “The Son of Man” from Dan. 7 to showcase his kingly authority to forgive and heal. Jesus remains in complete control, knowing he will be betrayed by a person close to him (14:18). It’s in his last breath that Mark records the centurion’s response to Jesus sacrificial death (15:39). This “Son of Man” is in complete control over the fate of his Kingdom. “The authority of the King has been established through the most shocking means: a bloody cross and an empty tomb.” It’s counterintuitively through death and dying to self that our eternal life is found (John 3:16). For Christians, in light of all this, living the Kingdom can be initially summarized by stating that we must embody it in our daily lives and practices by dying to ourselves like Jesus did. Without the Holy Spirit, and a Kingdom community around us, this is impossible.
Embodied Community of the Kingdom
The mustard-seed-Kingdom-movement exploded. Acts picks up the thread where Luke’s gospel left off; Jesus commanded his disciples to preach repentance to all nations as witnesses of himself (Luke 24:47). While explicit Kingdom language decreases, it’s centrality doesn’t. The Kingdom is only specifically mentioned eight times in Acts, but in critical places. The book begins and ends with KOG language. Right out of the gate Acts 1 introduces us to the resurrected Jesus who keeps teaching his disciples about the KOG for 40 days (1:3). Even up to the Ascension there is confusion surrounding what the KOG is, as his disciples were still looking for a physical and glorious restoration of the earthly kingdom to Israel (1:6). Their expectation was that “God's Kingdom would change the political order and displace all human rule and authority (Isa. 2:1-4),” in a way that happened immediately; but this wouldn’t be the case. God had other plans and purposes for his Kingdom of priests. In chapter 28, the book closes with Paul preaching from morning to night proclaiming the KOG (v. 23; 31). This Kingdom inclusio is no accident, skillfully reinforcing the kingdom focus and intent by its author. The 11-plus-1-disciples had been trained to build for this kingdom. As the church, they themselves weren’t the KOG. Men can’t actually build it themselves but they can preach it and proclaim it; on the other side men can either accept it or reject it with their lives.
In Acts 2, the promised Holy Spirit is poured out and Peter preaches a kingdom-centric sermon that is critical for our understanding of the gospel of the Kingdom. Gerry Breshears states that the gospel itself is simply the news that the Kingdom of God is here through what God has done in Jesus. Breshear’s summary of Peter’s sermon can be outlined as such; Incarnation: Jesus is Emmanuel, Lord and Messiah; Crucifixion: Jesus was crucified and died by the Fathers plan; Resurrection: Peter states that Jesus was raised from the dead; Exaltation: He was exalted over the hostile powers; the Holy Spirit is poured out on those who believe. Acts 2 provides the revelation of what God did to firmly establish his Kingdom. Our necessary response of conviction, confession, repentance, baptism, trust and faith must follow if we are to enter the kingdom. This preaching of the Kingdom didn’t go without suffering, in fact it was suffering that made it expand. In Acts 4, Peter (including the believers) pray for greater boldness as they quote Psalm 2 about the nations raging against the kingdom of King Jesus. Herod, Pilate, gentiles and even fellow Israelites had missed the boat on what God had predestined to do through Christ (4:23-28). This contested area would lead to the Kingdoms advancement through the power of the Holy Spirit and the gospel proclamation of a new king. It’s no mistake when Herod dies in Acts 12 showing that God was over human affairs and human kingdoms. In Acts 7, Stephens Christ-like suffering and forgiveness of his assailants was probably echoing in Paul’s subconscious when Jesus’ kingdom enveloped Paul’s life. Prior to his conversion, the great persecution against Christians led to the expansion of the gospel. There’s a clear connection between Christian suffering and Kingdom spread. Jesus told his disciples to expect it (John 16:33), and the paradigmatic model of Jesus life should lead his followers in every age to expect it. In Acts we see the superiority of Christ’s kingdom spread through suffering. As Ladd states, “the kingdom is now here with persuasion…” This compelling persuasion was modeled in believer’s selfless lives and broken, poured out bodies. As the transformed Saul sat in prison awaiting the trial that would lead to his death, he boldly proclaimed the KOG from morning to night, unhindered for two years (28:23; 30-31).
Paul and the Kingdom
As we have seen from Acts, the KOG is far from being a peripheral issue following the Gospels. For Paul, the KOG is clearly central even though the phrase itself is only mentioned eight times in Pauline literature. The KOG is what undergirds all his writings. The epistles are never divorced from the KOG but are in fact Kingdom manifestos to specific churches and people. Each is to be viewed as a masterful gospel-application-response, deeply imbued with Paul’s all-encompassing Kingdom thoughts. For Paul, “the Kingdom of God is something which straddles the dimensions of time, being both present and future.” Christ is clearly the beautiful King that Paul can’t get enough of. In Phil. 2:6-11 the King emptied himself, taking the role of an unselfish, humble servant, obedient to the point of death. J.A. Motyer notes that this “mind of Christ” language could mean to “take what is best, greatest and most desirable to oneself, and abandon it, freely, in the interests of a more cherished purpose.” The cross was his exaltation and God’s Kingdom the more cherished purpose. Through his death and resurrection, he was crowned King over the world. His life was the cruciform pattern for all future kingdom people who would build for the Kings kingdom. Generally, within Pauline literature he differentiates this ‘present age’ with the ‘age to come’ by using the KOG for the future consummation in the parousia, while using the ‘Kingdom of Christ’ (Col. 1:13) language to talk about what King Jesus is doing in the present today. In Col. 1:15-23 the King is the dominant, unrivaled boss over all beings who set us free from the opposing kingdom of darkness (v. 13). It was for this reason that Paul was compelled to give his life out and suffer for the King on the behalf of other Kingdom followers (v. 24). Paul commandeers language reserved for fragile earthly emperors and kings to show the absolute superiority of Christ through gospel service. For Paul, Jesus was the unmatched king over the entire earth, who, because he set us free from darkness, is worthy of our total reverence and allegiance. “Christ the King is the center of Paul's theology; preaching him is the means of forming the Kingdom people.” Earlier we talked about Kingdom being the King’s power, over the King’s people in the King’s place. For Paul, to enter this Kingdom meant to pursue all the things the King pursued. Now that the King is physically away, the Spirit allows his people to live his Kingdom mission. In Romans 1:3 Jesus is talked about as the descendent of David who reigns through resurrection (1:4) whose Kingdom, unlike David’s, was completely just. Through a profession of repentance and faith in this King (Rom. 10:9), believers will have access and entry into this Kingdom. “The righteousness required for entrance into the future realm of God's Kingdom is the righteousness with which results from God's reign in our lives [today].” Paul encourages all the churches that he’s planted to live rightly, and in unity under God’s rule as slaves to righteousness (Rom. 6:15-16). This is how the Christian will be built up and the Kingdom built for.
The Kingdom Tomorrow
Revelation is a book which spans the present age, and the age to come. With Jesus, life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension the last days were inaugurated (Heb. 1:2). The world as it is now, and the world to come, have overlapped and we live in the space between the times. “In this age there is death; in the Kingdom of God, eternal life. In this age, the righteous and the wicked are mixed together; in the Kingdom of God all wickedness and sin will be destroyed.” Revelation climaxes when the Kingdom goal, which began in Genesis, is fulfilled. A great transference of power occurs as “the Kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.” These two Kingdoms have been at war since the beginning. At the very heart of the book in 12:10 John states, “…Now the salvation and the power and the Kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down…” The serpent’s downfall is sealed, and the Christs’ reign is here. Kingdom victory is achieved, and the dragon is crushed by the sacrificial death of the Lamb. Reminiscent of Matt. 18:6, the representative kingdom of this age (Babylon) is drowned by a millstone. The city which caused so many to stumble is destroyed. “The kingdom concept in revelation is not just about the power of God, but the power of God displayed for the sake of his people to establish them in their new home.” The Kingdom in Revelation shows the unsurpassed power of the King to protect his people, in his place, by righteously judging all those who would oppress his children. The Kingdom of Priests (Rev. 1:6; 5:10) has a permanent place with its King. In Revelation 21 the ultimate Kingdom goal is achieved, and everything is put right.
Significant Takeaways and Application to Ministry
It seems today that everyone wants to identify with powerful, compelling political leaders of earthly kingdoms. Regardless of where a person lands politically, they want their mouthpiece to level the opposing force; even many Christians desire this. In a real way, I feel like we’ve lost sight of our ultimate home and ultimate rest when Christ returns to make things right in Rev. 21. The persuasion of the Kingdom should compel people who witness our lives to desire our King. Our Kingdom power experience comes through gospel proclamation, suffering and service. As a community we need to remind our people that the Kingdom hasn’t come all the way yet and that while we get to enjoy many of the aspects, we shouldn’t seek it today in a physical place. Our purpose isn’t to be comfortable but to follow our King.
When Jesus talked to the woman at the well in John 4, he didn’t reference a correct physical place but a correct spiritual posture of the ideal worshipper. The disciples were very confused about what kind of kingdom to expect until persecution came; first it was social, then physical. It seems evident to me in ways I’ve not seen before that persecution and mission go hand in hand. Service to King Jesus will inevitably lead us to challenging locations. George Ladd said it so well when he critiqued the modern Christian sentiment of (paraphrased), “oh, life is such a burden because of x,y,z… but that’s my cross to bear.” He states, “The cross is not a burden, the cross is a place of death. When you take up your cross, you are ready to die.” Being a pastor is about applying loving-pastoral-pressure to our people to prepare them for a good death, one that honors the King. We don’t know when our life journey on earth will end, so finishing well means living well today. Our individual kingdoms need to be daily put to death. Dying a good death means living a good life in humble service to the King. When we approach life with this mindset, it prepares us for the deepest joys and disappointments we will encounter. Everything we are and face is for King Jesus.
For a long while, I’ve understood that a central theme to the Bible is redemption. I never fully saw how kingdom was too. One of my main takeaways is that the Bible presents God as a King – not father, not friend, but King. How massive this shift is! We’re adopted children of the King, the King who must be followed wherever he leads us. After Jesus did battle with Satan in the wilderness, he was then able to minister effectively and proclaim the KOG. Christian spiritual formation is similar as we follow our King into places we’d rather not go. Ultimately, it’s a death sentence which leads to life. If living for the kingdom is the goal, a cruciform life is the means. The Kingdom cannot be understood apart from the cross. In conclusion, my largest takeaways are the complete Biblical scope of the Kingdom (even in Acts and Paul!), the persuasion it brings, the good death it entails, and how this necessitates our complete submission to King Jesus.
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