The Once and Future Kingdom

By Neil Earle

The year 2013 is still young, young enough to give one more orienteering sermons for all of us. A basic subject of Christianity of course is Jesus and the Kingdom of God. One of my New Testament teachers, Professor Gordon Fee, used to say that to miss the Kingdom of God is to miss Jesus altogether.

Under its previous incarnation as the Worldwide Church of God, our church had a strong emphasis on the Kingdom but it was also a narrow and limited one. Being devout pre-millennialists, that is, believing that Jesus would come before the Millennium; we invested all of our teaching into the future aspect of the Kingdom.

The Kingdom, we taught in booklets we sent out by the ton, was a future government that had laws, territory, a king and subjects. We consulted the Webster’s Dictionary and then projected that definition on Revelation 20, with its mention of a thousand year period. That was the whole ball of wax as far as we were concerned.

The Kingdom was future, it was millennial and it was “this worldly.”

A Broadening Perspective

Twenty years ago we begin to see problems with that view.

For one thing, Matthew’s Gospel had called it “the kingdom of heaven.” Why? Because it was blasphemy for devout Jews to pronounce the name of God. Hence the exclusive use of “heaven” in his gospel.

For a second thing, the Gospel of John only mentions the Kingdom twice – unless you are born again you cannot see the Kingdom of God. That alone should have made us think. In John’s writing, Jesus virtually becomes the Kingdom – belief in him is central for everything.

Thirdly, and most fatally to our older theories, the word “Kingdom” the four Gospel writers used was better translated “reign,” as in Exodus 15: 18, “The Lord will reign for ever and ever.” The Spanish Bible has it right – “el reino de Dios,” the reign of God. This of course provokes the question: How long has God been reigning? Answer: forever and ever. So the kingdom is much bigger in scope and meaning than just the millennial state.

With those orienting points behind us let’s study Jesus and the Kingdom, for our church was surely right about one thing – the Kingdom defines who Jesus was and is.

Urgency of the Kingdom

“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:14-15).

Just how near Jesus would soon make clear. But we need to remember that Jesus did not speak into a vacuum. People in his day had a certain idea in their mind when the phrase “the kingdom” was uttered. They saw a national super-state with the Jewish people in charge under the rule of a conquering strong man they called “the Messiah.” There had been many such pretenders across the years and some were sure that the stentorian and blunt John the Baptizer was the one. But John denied it even while saying the Messiah is indeed going to come very shortly (John 1:19-27).

The Jewish people expected the Messiah’s coming would be accompanied by dramatic heavenly signs – he would split the Mount of Olives (Zechariah 14:1-2). He would make them top dogs, people would beg the Jews to take them up to Jerusalem, the new capital city (Zechariah 8:23), the Gentile “dogs” would have to kow-tow to the Jewish nation and Herod and the Romans would be no more.

Instead what they got was a small-town Galilean teacher who seemed to have a penchant for the less, the lost, and the least and who hung around with winebibbers and gluttons. This Jesus of Nazareth seemed to get mad an awful lot at the religious types and warn that harlots and tax collectors (Roman collaborators) would enter the kingdom ahead of the synagogue-goers (Matthew 21:31). Worst still he warned that the hated Gentiles would be elevated above the temple priesthood. “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out” (Luke 13:28).

Wow! What a shocker.

Kingdom NOW!

But the parables he taught seemed to leave no doubt about his revolutionary message. The Great Banquet depicting Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom was for everyone – even those normally excluded from the religious feasts (Luke 14:16-24). Jesus, in other words, turned the popular expectation of the Kingdom of God upside down. It became instead a message of spiritual deliverance. All his healings pointed to the fact that the strong man, Satan, was bound, and Jesus was spoiling his bailiwick as he was driving out the demons. All this raises a crucial issue: Jesus acted and spoke as if he the Kingdom was already here with him, in his presence, in his person.

Once he was accused of driving out demons by being in league with Beelzebub the prince of demons. Jesus reacted forcefully: “If I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (Luke 11:20). Those who saw Jesus in action and heard him speak, in other words, were experiencing the kingdom already. As he told the men sent from John the Baptizer, “the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor” (Matthew 11:5).

Jesus’ message was a message of help and healing and the Kingdom he envisioned is a place of rest and healing – especially spiritual rest. As the Apostle Paul wrote years later: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes…a righteousness from God that is by faith from first to last” (Romans 1:16-17).

A faith rooted in Jesus and that leads to Kingdom work here and now – this is where the Gospel message really hits home. That is the here and now “already” aspect of the kingdom that many small sects in Christendom ignore. It is what the respected New Testament Professor George Eldon Ladd called in a memorable title, “The Presence of the Future.”

The Future and the Delay

But then – hold on, wait for it – The Kingdom is also future and, Jesus implied, quite a ways off in the future. Many of Jesus’ parables make this clear.

When the Son of man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, he will sit on this throne and judge the nations like dividing sheep and goat ((Matthew 25:31-32).

Jesus clearly taught that the future fullness of the Kingdom would be delayed, what some scholars call “the delay of the Parousia” (coming).

The Sower sows seed but an evil one plants weeds among the wheat. But the end will finally come when the weeds will be gathered and burned and the wheat stored in the barn (Matthew 13).

The Great Net is cast into the sea and takes in all kinds of fish – good and bad, but the angels will come at the end of the age and sort out the good from the bad.

The Young Nobleman goes into a far country to receive a kingdom and returns to judge the servants who have been waiting patiently (Luke 19).

There is a great Wedding Feast but the bridegroom delays and tarries and the wedding party falls asleep until the cry at midnight (Matthew 25).

These are the evidences that Jesus saw the Kingdom as future as well, what Christian teachers have labeled as the tension between the Already and the Not Yet.

Kingdom Living Now!

The rest of the New Testament builds upon this premise of living in “the times between.” This is the Kingdom living and Kingdom ethics Jesus expects from the “the children of the Kingdom” (Matthew 8:12). The apostle Paul told his churches, “The Kingdom of God is not meat and drink (i.e. foolish quarrels over diet) but righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). There is a work of Kingdom proclamation fueled by Kingdom living between the Already and the Not Yet. For that reason Jesus has already transferred his disciples into the Kingdom (Colossians 1:13), qualified them already to be his servants to carry and exemplify his joyful message of peace and reconciliation to the ends of the earth, inviting people to join them in the kingdom as priests and kings already! (1 Peter 2:9).

Jesus gave us a great signal sign to keep us mindful of his call to kingdom living and faithful obedience through all the harrowing trials and setbacks of this life. It is called the Lord’s Prayer and it begins with three petitions – to hallow God’s name, to pray for the coming kingdom and to effectively do God’s will on the earth: Kingdom living now! The prayer ends as almost all Christians know, “For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever, Amen.”

This seems to me to be good reorientation as we face this year. Amen, come Lord Jesus and take your mighty power and rule!