As N. T. Wright observes, “kingdom of God has been a flag of convenience under which all sorts of ships have sailed.”1 These ships are social, political, nationalistic, and theological. Their corresponding agendas often have little to do with the arrival of the kingdom of God announced by Jesus. The kingdom as found and presented in the New Testament will not be pressed into a one-dimensional box. There are passages which indicate a present kingdom aspect (Luke 17:21) and others which indicate a future aspect (Matthew 25:34; Luke 21:17, 31). Multiple texts demonstrate that the gospel of the kingdom was the message of Jesus and the apostles (Luke 4:43; 9:1, 2). Jesus “instructed the seventy to proclaim, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’ ” (Luke 10:1, 9). In Acts we find Philip who “preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ….” (Acts 8:12). The Apostle Paul in Ephesus “entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8). Near the end of his ministry, Paul “expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God….” (Acts 28:23).
The opening of the gospel of Mark proclaims the “beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Jesus arrives on the scene, “preaching the gospel [of the kingdom, KJV] of God” (1:14). He announces that “the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe in the gospel” (v. 15). The phrase “is near” can be understood as referring to something still to happen. However, as France comments, “If Jesus is understood to have proclaimed as ‘near’ something which had still not arrived even at the time when Mark wrote his gospel (let alone 2,000 years later), this is hardly less of an embarrassment than if he had claimed that ‘it’ was already present.”2
Future, present or both?
In considering the gospel of the kingdom, interpreters begin with theological pre-commitments and then understand references to the gospel of the kingdom within a pre-established framework. This is true of dispensationalists as well as covenant theologians where adherence to a system and hermeneutic virtually predetermines the outcomes. A dispensational premillennialist who holds to a programmatic distinction between Israel and the Church most naturally sees the kingdom as mostly, if not entirely, future with a primary reference to the reestablishment of national Israel in the Promised Land during the Millennium. For some, the gospel of the kingdom is connected with the offer and rejection of the kingdom, also known as the postponement theory, a theory which has seen a sharp decline in defenders. A covenantalist who sees Israel replaced or relocated in the Church easily moves to an understanding of a kingdom with present fulfillment and/or in the new heavens and the new earth. The nuances of these positions are myriad and I offer only the briefest sketch for sake of argument. There are other positions than these and positions within the positions.
One reason for renewed interest in this subject is that the gospel of the kingdom has been associated with understandings of the mission of the church which go beyond a traditional focus on saving souls. To listen to some critics, the gospel of the kingdom has become an umbrella for societal concerns which are unrelated to the mission of the church. We are warned that since the Christian gospel is concerned with the spiritual salvation of those in a fallen world, concern for the poor, the betterment of communities, literacy campaigns, community prayer vigils and the like, while legitimate good works for individual Christian engagement, must not be confused with or even connected with the mission of the corporate church. The striking thing about a view which dispatches the gospel of the kingdom to another era and dichotomizes word and deed ministry is that the voices appear to come almost exclusively, at least from what I hear, from suburban or small town, middle-class experience and attractional, program-oriented churches that rarely see firsthand the depth of the ravages of sin witnessed in societal problems prevalent in cities. The church is the building which services Christians and where Christians find refuge. The homeless are seen from afar or briefly encountered with sporadic mercy missions forays into the city; poverty is kept at arm’s length with occasional endeavors to provide food for feeding the hungry; urban blight is seen on the news but never seen up close since those neighborhoods have been abandoned in the name of upper mobility and those people avoided; gang violence is something on the news not something around the corner; and high school drop-out rates of 50% are unknown in privileged communities. Is it possible that those who rail against community and cultural engagement as part of the mission of the church have never experienced racial discrimination, economic exploitation, or systemic injustice? Do they believe that the gospel which brings new creation to individuals does not bear firstfruits of the eschatological new creation through the authority of the One who is Lord of all creation? I remain suspicious of either a vision that relocates the kingdom exclusively to the future or a realized version that sees no future kingdom fulfillment on earth.
Kingdom and gospel
Many churches ministering in urban areas see social concerns as spiritual problems, problems to which the gospel speaks through the message of salvation bringing transformation, granting eternal life and offering new life in Christ here and now. In short, the gospel of the kingdom, the good news of God’s reign already inaugurated in the first coming of Christ, authenticated by his earthly ministry in confronting and defeating the forces of evil, visibly and divinely demonstrated in the death, burial, resurrection, and session of Christ at the right hand of the Father, and consummated at his return in glory—this is the gospel we preach! It is not only a gospel for the hereafter—which would be enough if that was God’s intention—it is also a gospel for life here and now. It is not all about not being “left behind” or getting to heaven. According to Burge, “for Jesus, God’s kingdom was fundamentally God’s reign over the lives of men and women.”3
Of course any initiation of a present aspect of the kingdom must be distinguished from the consummation of the future kingdom. According to Ladd, “the Kingdom of God involves two great moments: fulfillment within history, and consummation at the end of history.”4 The reality of future completion does not rule out present kingdom realties and there is no area of human life or culture which is not subject to Jesus’ authority, where the gospel does not speak with power. While there is certainly a greater fullness and understanding of the gospel following the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is there any valid reason, apart from the impositions of a theological system, to deny that there is both a present aspect of reign of God among his people and an eschatological consummation?
We are grateful to God that in our personal experience we are already redeemed by the blood of Christ with forgiveness of sins, while knowing that we are not yet completely free from sin and temptation. We have an inheritance promised to us in heaven and in the new creation but still living in a sin-troubled world waiting to be set free (Rom. 8:22). We are already saved not yet fully saved, not when we die and go to heaven in a disembodied state, but at the redemption of the body (Rom. 8:23) and our entrance into the new creation in glorious bodies.
We already experience a taste of kingdom living among God’s people in the church but do not yet live in complete harmony. We have so much already in Christ and through the gospel but when we look at the world, at crime, violence, child prostitution, human trafficking, drug cartels, dictators, corruption, we see that Christ’s kingdom is not yet fully come. So we pray–”Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Not only do we pray, we endeavor by our deeds to confront evil as it manifests itself in brokenness and in the torn fabric of society. We confront homelessness, poverty, exploitation, injustice, crime-ridden streets, and gang violence as inimical to God’s already inaugurated, not-yet-consummated reign. His reign has arrived in the person of his Son Jesus Christ who in his earthly ministry invaded the territory of Satan and in his death dealt a decisive blow to the forces of evil. As Wright observes, “we must avoid the arrogance of triumphalism…imagining that we can build the kingdom by our own efforts” and “we must reject defeatism…which says there’s no point in even trying.”5
There are abuses committed and misguided agendas followed in the name of the kingdom of God. Yet as the gospel of God’s reign is proclaimed, and as men and women submit themselves to his authority, the already inaugurated, not yet consummated, kingdom of Christ is extended. When we preach the gospel of the kingdom as Jesus and the apostles did, we are not preaching something other than the gospel of God’s grace. We are warning and inviting sinners to repent and to submit to God’s reign in their lives and to experience spiritual transformation which touches on every area of life. We will not bring in the kingdom by our efforts but our efforts bear witness to and reflect the reality of God’s inaugurated reign and point to the greater and final fulfillment which only He can and will accomplish.
1 N. T. Wright, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: Harper One, 2008) 203.
2 R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark in NIGTC, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002) 92.
3 Gary M. Burge, Whose Land? Whose Promise? (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2003) 173.
4 George Elton Ladd, Presence of the Future: The Eschatology of Biblical Realism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996) 118.
5 Wright, 216.