In the first portion of this article, you will find an exhaustive list of New Testament references to the Kingdom of God, along with an brief survey of many sayings of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels—this was the first of three main sections to the article. I also provided a simple list of four primary aspects of the Kingdom of God concept:
- The eternal rule of God (in Heaven)
- An eschatological Kingdom (on earth), which can be understood in two different aspects:
a. An absolute or cosmic sense: New heavens and new earth (preceded by judgment on the World)
b. A localized sense: Messianic kingdom (preceded by judgment of the Nations)
- The presence of Christ—His life, work and teaching, death and resurrection
- The presence of God/Christ (through the Spirit) in the hearts, minds, and lives of believers
In the continuation here can be found the final two sections of the article: (a) on the eschatological aspect of the Kingdom in more detail, and (b) discussion more generally on the tension between a present and future sense of the Kingdom.
2. The Eschatological Aspect(s) of the Kingdom of God
In addition to the two-fold aspect indicated above, one may identify several strands which had coalesced by the time of the New Testament:
- God’s impending Judgment (as King) upon the nations and rulers of the world—prophetic theme of the “day of YHWH”
- A “new age” under God’s rule—a time of peace and prosperity on earth (see Isa. 2:4 and many other passages); in 2 Baruch 73 and Test. Mos. 10, etc., this idyllic condition is specific related to God’s Kingdom (or Kingdom of Heaven)
- Restoration of God’s rightful place as King among his people, in the religious-political order—with related theme of restored/rebuilt Temple—in addition to passages in the Prophets (Isa. 56:7; 60; 66:20; Zech 14:16ff, etc.), see also Tobit 14:5ff; 1 Enoch 25:4ff; 91:13; Jub. 1:15ff; 11QTemple 29, etc. The nations also will bring their wealth and offerings to God (in Jerusalem).
- The return of Israel (the Twelve tribes) from the nations, to constitute a renewed people/kingdom (centered in Jersualem)—cf. many passages in the Prophets (Isa. 2:2ff; 11:11f; 49:5ff; 56:1-8; 66:18-24, etc.) and subsequent Jewish literature (Tobit 13:5ff; Sirach 36:11ff; 2 Macc. 1:27ff; Ps. Sol. 17; Sib. Or. bk. 3; 1QM; Philo On Rewards and Punishments §§94ff, 162ff, etc.)
- The restoration of Davidic rule (‘eternal covenant’ with David, cf. 2 Sam 7:12ff, etc) in the person of an idealized/future Anointed figure (i.e. Messiah, “Branch of David”, cf. Isa. 11:1ff, etc). Under the influence of the Book of Daniel (and possibly other apocalyptic works), this “Messiah” concept merged with a separate “Son of Man” tradition—of a pre-existent, chosen human (or angelic) divine representative; cf. the Similitudes of Enoch (chs. 37-71) and the Gospels (Mark 2:10; 9:12; 13:26; 14:62; John 1:51, et al.)
The first three of these could certainly be understood in a general or symbolic fashion; the last two, however, would seem to imply concrete historical events, at least in part. Taken together, these (the return of the Twelve tribes, and the restoration of Davidic rule) make up #2b in the top list.
A most difficult question is: to what extant did Jesus speak of the Kingdom of God in a definite eschatological sense, and particularly in terms of #2b above?
Consider the first words of Jesus’ public ministry, as recorded in Mark 1:15 (par. Matt. 4:17): “the time has been (ful)filled and the kingdom of God has come near! Change (your) mind [i.e. repent] and trust in the good message!”
The perfect verbal forms—the time has been fulfilled (peplh/rwtai), the kingdom of God has come near (h&ggiken)—would indicate that the Kingdom has already come or was very close (in the process of coming, or about to come). But what is the sense of the “Kingdom of God” here? Many critical scholars assume that Jesus was speaking in terms of the common eschatological expectation shared by many Jews at the time. Based on the recorded reactions of those who heard his words (cf. especially Mark 11:9-10 par; Luke 17:10; 19:11; John 6:15), including his disciples (Acts 1:6), this indeed would appear to be how they understood it—that God was about to establish a tangible (Messianic) Kingdom on earth. In other Jewish writings roughly contemporary with Jesus and the New Testament—the Qumran texts, the ‘Similitudes’ of Enoch [chs. 37-71], the Psalms of Solomon [17-18], and so-called 4 Ezra—we find the hope/expectation of a end-time Messianic figure who will judge the nations, restore the kingdom to Israel, and/or inaugurate the “new age”. But how did Jesus himself understand the matter?
This really depends on whether one looks “forward”, from the standpoint of Jewish thought prior to Jesus (i.e., Jesus as a Jew), or looks “backward”, from the standpoint of early Christian interpretation (i.e., Jesus as the Son of God and resurrected/exalted Christ). The truth, I think, will be found somewhere in between.
It is important to note that Jesus’ initial proclamation of the Kingdom, according to Matt. 3:2, simply picks up where John left off. It is a striking announcement, sure to capture the attention of all who heard him. To judge from the Synoptic Gospels, throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus spoke and taught often about the Kingdom of God; even after the resurrection, according to Acts 1:3, he continued to speak of “the things about the Kingdom of God”. That he frequently taught of the Kingdom in parables and in terms of “secrets” (Mark 4:11 par.) would indicate that something more was involved than popular Jewish eschatology. An examination of all the Kingdom references I outlined previously shows a wide and diverse context within his teaching. I would like to suggest the following primary points of emphasis:
- Realization of the Kingdom of God begins with Jesus’ own person (in standard doctrinal terms, the incarnate person of Christ)—this seems to be a fundamental sense of the Kingdom having “come near” (see Matt 12:28, par. Luke 11:20); it may also be a proper sense of the saying in Luke 17:21.
- Those who hear and respond to the Word of God and presence of the Kingdom (in Jesus)—those who both trust and seek after the Kingdom (righteousness/justice)—will receive, inherit, and enter it. This is an eschatological aspect of the Kingdom, but one defined primarily by faith and ethical conduct.
- The Kingdom of God is still coming (present into future), in at least two senses:
a. The will and purpose of God becoming manifest on earth (parallel petition of the Lord’s Prayer), particularly in the hearts and lives of believers [call this the inward aspect of God’s presence and judgment]
b. God’s rule and power becoming manifest on earth ( associated with the coming of the Son of Man [trad. identified with the return of Christ]) [the outward aspect of God’s presence/judgment]
- There will be an entrance into and inheritance of the Kingdom for believers associated with the final judgment (end of the Age); this is an entrance into (eternal) life, where believers will experience the transcendent rule of God in Heaven
- There is an invisible (or hidden) and mysterious (spiritual) dimension to the Kingdom, as indicated in many of Jesus’ parables. This is also clear from the precious few references to the Kingdom in the Gospel of John (3:3, 5; 18:36); and is very much a possible meaning for the difficult saying in Luke 17:21. Though there may be a specific eschatological aspect to several of the parables, this ‘mysterious’ dimension of the Kingdom transcends past, present, and future (see below).
It is striking that, throughout all the Kingdom sayings and teachings in the Gospels, one finds very little evidence indeed for anything like the traditional concept of an earthly Davidic/Messianic kingdom (unless one assumes or reads this into them). Neither does one find this idea much in the remainder of the New Testament, though there are many references to Christ’s (imminent) future return and the coming Judgment. Only in the book of Revelation (esp. chapter 20) is anything like an earthly Messianic kingdom suggested, but a concrete interpretation of such passages is notoriously difficult. There remains, of course, the highly problematic question of whether Jesus still may have taught an imminent eschatological judgment and end of the current age; however, I do not know just how significant this is for an overall understanding of his teaching on the Kingdom of God, and the issue is sufficiently complex that I must save discussion on it for another time.
However, it is interesting to note that there are only three passages in the Gospels and Acts where Jesus addresses the question both of an imminent and tangible (earthly/Davidic) Kingdom:
- Luke 17:20-21: The Scribes and Pharisees ask ‘when comes the Kingdom of God?’ The response Jesus gives can be divided into three parts:
a. “the kingdom of God comes not with close watching”—which could have the sense of “while you are watching”, “even though you may be watching”, or “as a result of watching”. Likewise the implication could be that it won’t come with obvious observable signs, or that it will come while you are not aware of it.
b. “neither shall they say ‘see here!’ or ‘(see) there!'”—a further indication that it will come unexpectedly or imperceptibly, especially for those actively looking for it (in a superficial manner?)
c. “for, see! the kingdom of God is in(side) you (pl.)”—a most difficult saying, but certainly the indication is that the Kingdom is (and/or will be) in the midst of believers(?) in such manner that (most) people are unaware of it.
- Luke 19:11: Narrative introduction to the parable of the Minas (Luke 19:12-27), which is similar to the Matthean parable of the Talents (Matt. 25:14-30)—it is recorded that Jesus tells the parable because of “his being near Jerusalem, and their [the disciples’] thinking that the kingdom of God is about to appear [lit. shine forth]”. The parable itself may have been inserted here by Luke from a separate context, as it does not entirely fit the reason given, except for verse 12, which seems to suggest Christ’s exaltation to the Father (receiving the Kingdom) and future return. How soon or imminent this might be is not clear, though the context of the parable suggests perhaps a relatively short time.
- Acts 1:6: The disciples ask: “Lord, in this time are you restoring the Kingdom to Israel?” As a modest rebuke, perhaps, Jesus effectively refuses to answer their question. Is the question itself invalid or inappropriate? Consider how he does respond:
a. “it is not for you to know the times or seasons which the Father has set in (his) own exousia [i..e. authority]”
b. “but you shall receive the power of holy Spirit coming upon you”
c. “and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem [and] in all Judea and Samaria and unto the end of the earth”
Interesting in this regard is the rare variant reading in the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:2): instead of “let your Kingdom come” (e)lqe/tw h( basilei/a sou), one late manuscript (MS 700, partially supported by MS 162) and several Church Fathers read “let your holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us” (e)lqe/tw to\ a%gion pneu=ma sou e)f’ h(ma=$ kai\ kaqarisa/tw h(ma=$). This variant substitutes the coming of the Holy Spirit for the coming of the Kingdom—was this an early gloss which identified Kingdom and Spirit?
Even though Jesus may not answer the disciples’ question regarding the “restoration of the kingdom”, one finds implicit in the narrative of Acts 2 (and beyond) the theme of the “restoration of Israel”. The Twelve disciples (symbolizing the twelve tribes) are gathered together (in Jerusalem) in one place, where they experience a theophany (presence of God via the Spirit); Jews from the surrounding nations (the Dispersion) are also gathered in Jerusalem, where they hear the word of God; the disciples then go out into the surrounding nations, where a new people of God (Jews and Gentiles) is formed through preaching of the Gospel.
3. Present and Future Aspects of the Kingdom
This has been discussed to some extent above, as well as in the survey of New Testament references in the first portion of this article. Here I will limit discussion to passages outside of the Gospels, particularly those in the various Epistles and the Gospel of John.
In the Pauline Epistles (including, for the moment, Colossians/Ephesians and the Pastorals), specific references the Kingdom (of God and/or of Christ) are as follows:
- Nature and character of the Kingdom:
1 Cor. 4:20: “for the Kingdom (is) not in word, but in power”—that is, not in (human) speech, but in the power of God (power of the Spirit). There is no verb here, and the declaration appears to be general (not limited to present or future)
Romans 14:17: “for the Kingdom of God is (e)stin, present) not eating and drink(ing), but justice and peace and joy in (the) Holy Spirit”
Both statements contrast ‘ordinary’ human activity with a deeper quality in, or of, the Spirit.
- Inheriting the Kingdom:
Galatians 5:21; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Eph. 5:5: here the context is a ‘list of vices’ (contrasted in Galatians with a list of “fruit of the Spirit”)—all who exhibit these vices “will not inherit (klhronomh/sousin, future) the Kingdom of God”. In Ephesians it reads “does not have (e&xei, present) inheritance in the Kingdom of Christ and God”. This is the same sort of ethical injunction we find in Jesus’ teaching, the language being common to both Jewish and early Christian tradition.
1 Cor. 15:50 states more generally: “flesh and blood is not able [lit. is not powered] (du/natai, present passive) to inherit (klhronomh/sai, aorist inf.) the Kingdom of God, nor does corruption inherit (klhronomei=, present) incorruption”. As the context here is the mystery of the resurrection, the Kingdom has a strong future eschatological sense—entrance into the eternal rule of God (in Heaven).
- Believers called/brought into the Kingdom:
1 Thess. 2:12: an exhortation to walk worthy of God “the (one who) calls (kalou=nto$, present part.) you into his (own) Kingdom and glory”.
Col. 1:12-13: an exhortation to give thanks to the Father “the (one who) has enabled us unto the portion of the inheritance (klh=ro$) of the holy ones in the light, who rescued us out of the authority of darkness and transferred (us) into the Kingdom of His (be)loved Son.” (Verbs are all aorist)
2 Tim 4:18: “the Lord will rescue me from every evil work and will save (me) [i.e. keep me safe] into His heavenly Kingdom”.
Note that in the 1 Thess 2:12 the action is in the present (“calls” or “is calling”), in Col. 1:12-13 the past (“enabled/rescued/transferred”), in 2 Tim 4:18 the future (“will resue/save”).
- Christ’s Kingdom in a christological sense (emphasizing his Deity and/or exaltation):
Christ seated at the right hand of God: Rom. 8:34; Eph 1:20-21; Col 3:1; see also Col 2:10, 15; 1 Tim 1:17; as well as Rom. 14:1; 15:12; Phil. 2:10; 2 Tim 2:12.
- Christ’s Kingdom in an eschatological sense (his future coming, etc.):
1 Cor 15:24-25: “then [i.e. after that] the end (telo$) when he should give over [lit. give along] (paradidw=|, present subjunctive) the Kingdom to God and Father…”
1 Tim 6:14-15: part of a concluding exhortation “to guard the commandment…until the appearance [lit. shining upon, e)pifanei/a] of our Lord Jesus Christ, which [i.e. the appearance] He will show in (His) own times [lit. seasons], the blessed [lit. happy] and only Powerful-one, the King of kings and Lord of lords”.
Not surprisingly these Pauline references, in the pastoral context of the letters, often use eschatological language and imagery in order to exhort believers for living and acting in the present. Predominantly eschatological passages are rather few, though of course there are many other instances referring to the future coming of Christ and the impending Judgment on the world by God (through Christ).
When we turn to the remainder of the New Testament Epistles, specific references are fewer still:
- Believers receiving/inheriting/entering the Kingdom:
James 2:5: “has God not gathered out (e)cele/cato, aorist) the poor in the world (to be ones) rich in trust [i.e. faith] and inheritors of the Kingdom (which he promised to the [ones who] love him)?”
2 Peter 1:11: “for thus shall be supplied (e)pixorhghqh/setai, future pass.) richly to you the way into the Kingdom of-the-ages [i.e. eternal] of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.”
Hebrews 12:28: “through which [dio/, i.e. therefore] receiving [lit. taking alongside] (paralamba/nonte$, present part.) an unshakable Kingdom, we should have joy [or ‘grace’, i.e. let us be grateful], (and) through which (di’ h!$) we should serve [i.e. do hired service] well-pleasing to God with right attitude [lit. taking/receiving well] and fear [i.e. reverence/awe]”.
- Christ at the right hand (of the throne) of God:
Hebrews 8:1 (“is seated” e)ka/qisen, aorist active); 12:2 (“has sat [down]” keka/qiken, perfect active); also 1:8 (quoting Psalm 45:6-7: “your throne, O God, [is] unto the age of ages, and a rod of straightness [i.e. ‘rightness’] is the rod of your Kingdom”).
These references to the Kingdom from the Epistles, can, I think, be summarized according to the following themes:
- God has acted to call/deliver believers “into” the Kingdom (present with future promise); here the Kingdom seems to have the primary sense of life “in Christ” (in the Spirit)
- The character of believers should conform to that of the Kingdom, both in terms of an ethical standard and according to the Spirit—the power (1 Cor 4:20) and fruit (Gal 5:22ff) of the Spirit. Those with contrary character/behavior will not achieve the eschatological promise (to enter/inherit the Kingdom); here the Kingdom has the fundamental sense of the eternal rule of God (in Heaven), only now it is “the Kingdom of God and Christ“.
- There is a christological theme—Christ seated at the right hand of God; again this should be understood a the eternal rule of God (in Heaven).
- There is also an eschatological theme—primarily that of believers’ future entrance “into” the Kingdom (Paul relates this to the Resurrection in 1 Cor 15); again this is the heavenly, eternal rule of God (and Christ, cf. esp. 1 Cor 15:24-25). The Kingdom theme/motif plays only a small part in the main eschatological message: namely of the parousia (coming) of Christ and future Judgment.
The Gospel of John has just five references (in only 2 passages) to the Kingdom of God (and Christ):
- John 3:3, 5: here we have two parallel sayings of Jesus, which share the same form:
“Amen, amen, I say to you, unless [lit. if not] one [ti$] should come-to-be (born)
from above [a&nwqen] (v. 3) out of water and Spirit (v. 5)
he is not able [lit. powered, du/natai]
to see (v. 3) to come into (v. 5)
the Kingdom of God”
In between these is the question of Nicodemos (“how is a man able to be born [when] he is old….?”), an instance of the familiar Johannine theme of misunderstanding. The word a&nwqen (lit. “from above”) can also mean “from the first”, “again”; through a bit of wordplay, when Jesus speaks of being born “from above”, Nicodemus hears it as being born “again, a second time”. Jesus appears to respond with an even subtler bit of wordplay: he glosses a&nwqen (“from above”), indeed, in terms of two births—out of water, and (out of) Spirit, though this should be understood as two aspects of the one birth “from above”. A precise interpretation of this phrase, and of the powerful discourse which follows, remains most challenging. I have discussed the passage in more detail in an earlier post. Here I will only draw attention yet to the last parallel phrase: “to see” and “to come into” the Kingdom of God. To see the Kingdom means to perceive its invisible nature and mysterious working, particularly in regard to motif of “seeing Christ” (the Son, who was sent by the Father and reveals the Father). As indicated throughout this article the idea of “entering” the Kingdom traditionally has a strong ethical and eschatological component; however, in the Gospel of John, the emphasis is somewhat different. I would argue that here “coming into” the Kingdom should be understood in terms of (the disciples) coming to Christ, and (through Christ) to the Father. There is a strong sense of the ‘incarnate’ Christ—the Light and Word, sent by God, and come into the World; believers who see and hear this Word are called out of the World (to the Father, where Christ is). We also find the sense that, through the Incarnation, the Judgment of God has already come upon the World (cf. John 3:17ff, etc.).
- John 18:36: the context is Jesus’ exchange with Pilate (emphatic position emphasized):
“My Kingdom is not out of [e)k] this world (kosmo$)”
“if My Kingdom were out of this world, my attendants would struggle that I should not be given over to the Jews”
“but now My Kingdom is not on (this) side (e&nqen)”
As in the dialogue with Nicodemos, Jesus is responding to a ‘question’ from the Jewish leaders, by way of Pilate: “are you the King of the Jews?” (v. 33). This would seem to be the clearest possible denunciation of a temporal, earthly kingdom (such as many Jews of the time might expect [see above]). Pilate himself clearly misunderstands Jesus’ words and presses for clarification: “(is it) not therefore (that) you are a(n earthly) king?” (v. 37). Jesus’ response is extraordinary indeed: “you say I am a king! I have come to be (born) unto this, and unto this I have come into the world, that I should witness to the truth; every one that is out of [e)k] the truth hears my voice”. This powerful verse is essential for understanding what Jesus means by “My Kingdom”:
- e)gw/ (“I”)—the Person of Christ (cf. e)gw ei)mi “I Am”)
- ei)$ tou=to (“into this”, i.e. unto this end, for this purpose)—the literal phrase itself has great significance: ei)$ (“into”) is juxtaposed with e)k (“out of”); “into this” is both concrete (this very moment, etc.) and generic (what does “this” refer to?), and can carry several nuances at once (this world, this time, this place, this purpose, this suffering/death, etc.)
- gege/nnhmai (“I have come to be [born]”)—this signifies more than Jesus’ earthly birth, but touches upon His relation as Son to the Father, as well as the wider sense of the Incarnation (coming-to-be flesh, in the world, etc.)
- e)lh/luqa ei)$ to\n ko\smon (“I have come into the world”)—again this signifies more than Jesus’ being born a human being on earth; the World (ko/smo$) in the Gospel of John typically connotes a realm of darkness and evil, “below” vs. “above”, those who oppose God and cannot see or hear His truth.
- i%na marturh/sw th=| a)lhqei/a| (“that I should witness to the truth”)—the themes of witness (the Son sees and does all that He sees/hears from the Father) and truth (cf. John 14:6, 17 etc) are vital, occurring throughout the Gospel.
- pa=$ o( w*n e)k th=$ a)lhqei/a$ (“every one that is out of the truth”)—i.e., every one who ‘comes from’, ‘belongs to’, or perhaps ‘is born of’ the truth. See above on John 3:5 (“coming to be born out of… [e)k] the Spirit”), and reference to the Spirit/Paraclete (John 14:17 “the Spirit of truth”).
- a)kou/ei mou th=$ fwnh=$ (“hears my voice”)—note the emphatic “hears my voice”; the motifs of hearing (John 3:8; 4:42; 5:24-28, 30; 6:45; 8:26, 38, 40, 43, 47; 10:3, 27; 11:41-42; 12:38, 47; 14:24, 27-28; 15:15; 16:13) and voice (John 3:29; 5:25, 28, 37; 10:3-5, 16, 27; 11:43; 12:28, 30) are frequent in the Gospel.
In conclusion, I would like to stress three key points which I believe help to summarize the relation between present and future aspects of the Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is:
- First, our experience and union with the Person of Christ and God the Father in the Spirit (always present)
- Second, the ethical teaching and example of Christ, which once we knew primarily by command (and written Word), but we now experience more and more through the inner power and work of the Spirit (present [and past], moving into the future).
- Third, the witness and experience of the saving power and work of Christ in the Spirit (present [and past], looking toward future salvation).
- Fourth, the promise of Resurrection and Eternal Life with God and Christ in Heaven (the fullness of the eternal rule of God)—future, but also an experience of its mystery in the present.