Written by S. M. Baugh |
Wednesday, May 3, 2023
A robust, biblical understanding of the kingdom of God is deeply beneficial for our perseverance in faith and for our spiritual life. As a work of new creation, Christ is already transforming our inner person into his own image through the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18; 4:16; Eph. 3:16; Col. 3:10). But this transformation now has a great and glorious goal at his arrival when our bodies will bear his image in heavenly, resurrection glory (1 Cor. 15:49; 1 John 3:2). This is the focus of Christ’s kingship over the kingdom of God, the new creation, of which we are now a part.
It was my custom in my seminary class on the Gospels to ask the students at the opening of the kingdom of God section the simple question: “What is the kingdom of God?” Their faces grew serious as they invariably discovered that they did not know the answer exactly or that their thinking was unsatisfyingly vague. Yet the definition of the kingdom of God is easy to give: it is the new creation, the new heavens and the new earth. In the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, it is “the kingdom of glory” (Q/A 102). According to that catechism answer, we are asking our Father to hasten this new creation kingdom when we pray for his kingdom to come in the Lord’s Prayer.
I don’t think people expect the definition of the kingdom to be so simple, but it is, and the Scriptures are clear on this. The kingdom of God is an eternal inheritance for all those who have been redeemed by Christ (Westminster Confession of Faith 8.5). And a promised inheritance necessarily lies in the future. Jesus confirms this when he speaks of our coming into the inheritance of the kingdom of God (Matt. 19:23–24) at the “rebirth” of creation when “the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne” (v. 28). At that time, all believers “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matt. 13:43) and “inherit eternal life” (Matt. 19:29).
This is why Paul, in a very important chapter in 1 Corinthians, insists that believers must be raised bodily and concludes, “I declare this, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the corruptible inherit incorruptibility” (1 Cor. 15:50).
Thus, to enter into eternal life is to enter into the kingdom of God in resurrection glory. This shows that the kingdom of God is the new creation, when this heaven and earth will be comprehensively shaken (Heb. 12:26; cf. Rev. 6:12–14) and destroyed by fire (2 Pet. 3:7–13; cf. 2 Thess. 1:7–8). Then God will make all things new (Rev. 21:5) to be an “eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” into which we who persevere in faith will enter by God’s rich provision (2 Pet. 1:11). “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Heb. 12:28).
Is That It?
Yet is that it? Is the kingdom of God solely a future, divine, cosmic renovation of this creation when the Lord Jesus returns? Strictly speaking, yes, it is. The kingdom of God is the new heavens and new earth by definition, strictly speaking. It is true that we can possess this kingdom now as a covenantally guaranteed inheritance (especially Matt. 5:3, 10; Luke 22:29; 1 Pet. 1:3–5), but it is a future inheritance for which this whole creation groans in anticipation (Rom. 8:19–22).
But what about the New Testament proclamation that the kingdom of God has decisively drawn near in Christ (e.g., Matt. 3:2; 4:17; 10:7; 12:28)? Did he postpone the kingdom to some distant future when he ascended to heaven in resurrection glory as the old form of dispensationalism teaches? No! On this the New Testament is very clear: “the powers of the age to come” (Heb. 6:5), marking the kingdom of God, have already arrived with the Son of God “in these last days” (Heb. 1:2; cf. 1 Cor. 10:11; Heb. 9:26; 1 John 2:18). Yet this requires some careful distinctions to understand properly.
Inauguration and Consummation
Scholars and preachers speak of the kingdom being “already” and “not yet” to deal with the fact that the Lord Jesus has indeed established it at his first coming. The distinction itself has the particular advantage of being biblical. For example, in Revelation 12, John sees a vision of the birth and ascension of Christ immediately followed by a battle between the devil and his angels who are cast out of heaven. We are then told what this means:
And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “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.” (Rev. 12:10; emphasis added)
Thus, the kingdom of God is “already” when Christ Jesus “was caught up to God and to his throne” (Rev. 12:5) at his ascension.
In another vision in Revelation, though, John sees a portrayal of judgment day when the wrath of God comes, and he exerts his almighty power to take up his reign (Rev. 11:17). Then loud voices in heaven shout:
The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever. (Rev. 11:15)
Obviously, what had transpired earlier in history at the ascent of Christ (Rev. 12:5 above) was a real inauguration of the kingdom of God but not its consummation; it was “not yet” in the final, consummate sense. But how do we sort out this “already/not yet” dynamic without merely stating an unhelpful enigma?
Five Vantage Points
To address this potential problem of “already/not yet” sounding like an obscure riddle, I find it helpful to discuss the kingdom of God from five vantage points: 1) the king; 2) his authority to rule (“dominion” or “kingship”); 3) his realm (“dominion”); 4) his subjects or citizens; and 5) the divine covenant, which in biblical kingdoms acts as charter and constitution. Let’s sketch out four of these very briefly.