The idea of a “Kingdom of God” is central to the message of Jesus recorded in the Bible. It is recorded in the Bible that this was his primary topic when he was teaching in the synagogues,
Matthew 4:23: Jesus went about in all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness among the people. WEB
Even further than that, he urged his followers to seek the kingdom of God as the first thing in their lives, and to place it at a point of importance that was well above all other things.
Matthew 6:33: But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. NKJV
In the context he was talking, it was against such basic things as finding food and clothing. So he was telling his followers to seek the kingdom ahead of seeking the basic necessities, and shows that he considered it to be of ultimate importance and value.
Given the importance attached to this kingdom in the message of Jesus, here we investigate some of the issues surrounding the concept of the Kingdom of God as presented in the Bible. This includes what the kingdom actually is, and when it was to occur.
- Kingdom of Heaven
- The Two-Age Model
- The Transition Between the Ages
- The Grand Visions
An eschatology (pronounced es-kuh-tahl'-uh-jee) is a discourse about the “last things”, from the Greek word “eskhatos” meaning “last”. That means it is concerned about the final events and ultimate purpose of things. In terms of Christian theology, that amounts to God's final plan with people and the earth.
There are a number of divisions of the field eschatology, to refer to the end-time of specific aspects of the world. Some of the common terms are:
- Personal or Individual Eschatology. This deals with the eventual fate of the individual after death. It appears commonly in the Bible in the form of there being a resurrection from the dead.
- Cosmic Eschatology: At the opposite end of the scale, this is about the end of the world or whole cosmos.
- Corporate Eschatology: Corporate Eschatology refers to human-kind and human history as a whole, so it is more about future of the species, but not focused so much on the whole universe.
- National or Ethnic Eschatology: This narrows on to a specific national end-time. Most commonly it refers to the future of the nation of Israel in God's plan.
Apocalypse is a genre of literature. Specifically it is a narrative form of a revelation given to humans from a non-human source. It reveals a truth about the past, present or future, but most common use is in terms of the future.
As a result, apocalyptic literature is often concerned about eschatology, and eschatology often defined through an apocalypse. The term “The Apocalypse” is often used specifically to refer to the Book of Revelation in the new testament, because it is primarily apocalyptic writing. The name “Apocalyptic Discourse” is also given to the revelation of Jesus that is recorded in Luke 21, Matt 24, and Mark 13. It talks about things that were yet to happen before the plan of God would be fulfilled.
A parousia is the coming or arrival of an important figure of history. It is particularly used of the second coming of Jesus. In the book of Acts, it was recorded that Jesus was “taken up” off the earth while his disciples watched, but there was a promise of him again returning. This was quoted of an angels who appeared at that scene,
Acts 1:11: "Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven." NKJV
This advent of Jesus returning is an integral part of the Bible, and appears either directly or by implication in many sections. In the Apocalyptic Discourse, Jesus had stated,
Luke 21:27: Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28. But when these things begin to happen, look up, and lift up your heads, because your redemption is near." WEB
This is typical of the scripture, where the redemptive and resurrection aspects of the individual eschatology are tied to this event.
The Kingdom in Eschatology
Because the Kingdom of God is so closely linked to eschatology in the Bible, there is a series of terms that are used to describe the way in which the Kingdom could possibly fit into the end times and parousia.
- Futurist Eschatology. In this model, the Kingdom remains in the future and will disrupt history at the point in which it is introduced. This is the simplest scheme, and maps very easily into a two-age model. The present age is where we live now, and the age to come is the same as the Kindgom of God, and it will appear after the parousia.
- Realised Eschatology. In this model, the kingdom was fully realized in the first coming of Jesus. That means that the Kingdom completely exists now, and no future dramatic changes would be expected. (note: American spelling is “realized eschatology”)
- Inaugurated Eschatology. This scheme claims that the kingdom
arrived in part at the first coming of Jesus, but the full consummation does
not occur until 2nd coming. This is sometimes known as a
“partially realised eschatology”.
Proponents of this idea use the phrase “now, but not yet” to describe the presence of the kingdom. It is "Now" because Jesus has inaugurated the Kingdom, like the planting of the mustard seed of the parable in Luke 13:19. But then it is still "Not Yet" because the kingdom not yet fulfilled. In the analogy this is because the mustard seed has not yet grown into the tree.
3. Kingdom of Heaven
The book of Matthew commonly uses the phrase “The Kingdom of Heaven”, while in the rest of the New Testament the similar phase of “The Kingdom of God” is used instead. That raises the question of whether these mean the same thing, or whether they are describing two different kingdoms, or different aspects of that kingdom.
The Greek word translated “God” in the New Testament is “Theos”, and has a broad meaning of diety. “Heaven” is quite a different term and literally just means the sky or a high place. It is associated with the dwelling place of God though, and so bears a close relationship. At times the Jews used the term “heaven” as an idiom for “God” or even in the style of a euphemism. This was to avoid addressing God in a non-reverential way, similar to how modern translations of the Bible still use the term “the Lord” in the place of the name of God.
There is an example of this in the parable of the prodigal son, where the son returns and recognises his sin. The sin is against God, but the returning son uses the term “heaven” to refer to this.
Luke 15:17: But when he came to himself he said, `How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough to spare, and I'm dying with hunger! 18. I will get up and go to my father, and will tell him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight. WEB
Contrasting to this, David in the Psalms uses the same language, but is explicit in referring to God,
Psalm 51:1: Have mercy on me, God, ... 4. Against you, and you only, have I sinned, ... WEB
It would appear that Matthew was writing with this Jewish influence or to a Jewish audience and so used this term. This does not mean that “heaven” is the same in meaning to “God” in the writing of Matthew, as “heaven” is also used in much more specific and literal circumstances.
One of several examples of how “Kingdom of God” and “Kingdom of Heaven” occurs with the parallel record of the analogy with the mustard seed. This are recorded in both Matthew and Mark.
Matthew 13:31: He set another parable before them, saying, "The Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field; WEB
Mark 4:30: He said, "How will we liken the Kingdom of God? Or with what parable will we illustrate it? 31. It's like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, though it is less than all the seeds that are on the earth, WEB
So it is reasonable to treat the two terms as being the same thing, and the ownership of the kingdom is actually God, and not some broader concept of the heavens.
4. The Two-Age Model
A basic model that is used to describe things concerning the Kingdom of God is the “two-age” model. The teachings of Jesus, and also the other New Testament writings speak of there being “this age”, and also the “age to come”. They are used in the context of being two separate periods of time. There is not generally any implication of there being any third age, or any time in which the two ages overlap. For example, this terminology is used in Matthew 12:
Matthew 12:32: "Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come. NKJV
Difference in the Ages
There are also differences cast between the two ages, showing how the world works differently in each. One example of this is in the case of marriage:
Luke 20:34: Jesus said to them, "The children of this age marry, and are given in marriage. 35. But those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry, nor are given in marriage. 36. For they can't die any more, for they are like the angels, and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. WEB
Here Jesus notes that marriage is a normal custom in the present age, but that it would no longer occur in the future age. Along with that, it states that people would not die anymore in the age to come. That identifies the age to come as one where people would receive eternal life, which is not available at the moment. The other concept introduced here is that of the resurrection from the dead. Although it is not spelled out exactly here, it forms that link between the person in this age, and the person it the age to come.
The writing in 1 Corinthians also mentions the wisdom and rulers of the ages. The word “wisdom” carries with it quite broad implications, because it defines the way people think in a society, and the whole basis of the values system. The nature of the rulers also defines the way that the society works and thinks.
1 Cor 2:6: However, we speak wisdom among those who are mature, yet not the wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. NKJV
With those words, Paul was saying that values in terms of what was wise and what was foolish would change between the two ages, and that the rulers of this age do not understand the wisdom of the age to come. The wisdom of this present age is always considered evil or inferior to the that of the age to come. In the book of Galatians, claims that the present age is evil in nature and that we should look to be delivered from it.
Galatians 1:3: Grace to you and peace from God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, 4. who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us out of this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father WEB
The concept of “eternal life” appears many times in the Bible, and it means to be able to live on forever without dying. In Mark 10 it was recorded that a rich man asked Jesus what would have to do to inherit eternal life.
Mark 10:17: As he was going out into the way, one ran to him, knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?" WEB
It is quite clear that the man is talking about an eschatological eternal life, and quite likely had in mind the teaching of the resurrection described in Daniel 12 of the Old Testament. The response to this is of interest to us, because people are naturally interested in their long-term destiny. Apart from following the commandments, Jesus also told him that he wouldn't be able to hold on to both his financial riches as well as the riches of God. That led on this following statement:
Mark 10:23: Jesus looked around, and said to his disciples, "How difficult it is for those who have riches to enter into the Kingdom of God!" WEB
This provides a direct link between “inheriting eternal life” and “entering the Kingdom of God”. Just as in Luke 20:36 the resurrected of the “age to come” would not die, here entrance into the Kingdom of God is equated to that same eternal life. From that, we can conclude that one of the features of the Kingdom is that people may live forever in it.
As the passage continues, a further connection is made between “eternal life” and “the age to come”, showing that eternal life was something only to be expected in that new age that was yet to appear,
Mark 10:30: .. he will receive one hundred times more now in this time, houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and land, with persecutions; and in the age to come eternal life. WEB
5. The Transition Between the Ages
Ephesians 2:5: even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6. and raised us up with him, and made us to sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7. that in the ages to come he might show the exceeding riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus; WEB
2 Thess 1:5: This is an obvious sign of the righteous judgment of God, to the end that you may be counted worthy of the Kingdom of God, for which you also suffer. 6. Since it is a righteous thing with God to repay affliction to those who afflict you, 7. and to give relief to you that are afflicted with us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, 8. giving vengeance to those who don't know God, and to those who don't obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus, 9. who will pay the penalty: eternal destruction from the face of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 10. when he comes to be glorified in his saints, and to be admired among all those who have believed (because our testimony to you was believed) in that day. WEB
There are a number of competing schools of thought about the process of the establishment of the Kingdom of God. These mainly relate to the treatment of the time period known as the “millennium”. The millennium concept arises primarily from a short passage in Revelation, which speaks of a particular period of 1000 years. However, other sections of the Bible also may be understood in relation to this.
Pre-millennialism states that there will the return of Christ will occur before a 1000 year period referred to in Revelation. Proponents may or may not see this as a 1000 literal years, but little importance can be placed on this, as there are no other events recorded that are necessary to place it against.
This is the natural view to arrive at by simply reading Revelation. Chapter 19 and 20. In Chapter 19, we see Word of God riding on the white horse, representing the returned Jesus,
Rev 19:11: I saw the heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and he who sat on it is called Faithful and True. In righteousness he judges and makes war. 12. His eyes are a flame of fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has names written and a name written which no one knows but he himself. 13. He is clothed in a garment sprinkled with blood. His name is called "The Word of God." WEB
Immediately following that in Chapter 20, we see a description of a resurrection and the 1000 year period.
Rev 20:4: I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them. I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus, and for the word of God, and such as didn't worship the beast nor his image, and didn't receive the mark on their forehead and on their hand. They lived, and reigned with Christ for the thousand years. 5. The rest of the dead didn't live until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. 6. Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over these, the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and will reign with him one thousand years. WEB
Traditional pre-millennialism claims that this is a resurrection only of the righteous prior to the millennium, and that there is a second resurrection for the unrighteous at the end of it. An alternate view is that verse 5 instead claims that the rest of the righteous ones to live during the millennium would not be resurrected until the end of the millennial period.
There is also a statement here that the raised people would be rulers during the millennium period. One could expect that this would be over mortal subjects of the kingdom at that time.
Post-millennialists claim that the millennium period is in effect now, and that the culmination of the new age and return of Jesus will occur at the end of the millennium. There is a focus among this theology that political, social and economic righteousness before must be achieved by Christians before the end comes.
It is then considered the victorious mission of the church to bring this revolution about. This view gained popularity in response to seeing that there was still evil preset in the millennium period described, and so it was thought to be in the “present age” rather than the “age to come”
This view had some popularity before the 1st world war, when technology was appearing to bring prosperity to the world, but has been all but abandoned in more recent years, as people see such a human-led moral victory to be impossible, and can see little support for it in the scriptures.
Amillennialism is the view that there is no millennium as such. This requires a spiritual view of Revelation, and the 1000 years is considered synonymous with the church age. This view is quite popular, but is difficult to fit in with literal readings of the scriptures.
The primary difference between this and post-millennialism is that it is not considered the role of the church to transform the secular order. However, Christ is considered to be reigning in the world now though the church, and as such the kingdom exists now. One passage showing this idea is in Ephesians, where the present tense is used of the believers sitting in heavenly places,
Eph 2:4: But God, being rich in mercy, for his great love with which he loved us, 5. even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6. and raised us up with him, and made us to sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7. that in the ages to come he might show the exceeding riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus; WEB
Note though, that there is still the element of future tense with the ages to come, where the riches of grace would be shown.
6. The Grand Visions
There are some well-known passages from the Bible that speak of a future time when the world will be a better place. Some of these just allude to the time, but others are quite specific about the conditions. These quite clearly fit in with the concept of the “age to come” in the two-age model, and also the Kingdom of God.
The Book of Isaiah is a collection of prophecies relating to Israel, and the part of Israel known as Judah. One of the early passages relates to a time known as the “latter days”.
Isaiah 2:1.: The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2. Now it shall come to pass in the latter days That the mountain of the LORD's house Shall be established on the top of the mountains, And shall be exalted above the hills; And all nations shall flow to it. 3. Many people shall come and say, "Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, To the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, And we shall walk in His paths." For out of Zion shall go forth the law, And the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 4. He shall judge between the nations, And rebuke many people; They shall beat their swords into plowshares, And their spears into pruning hooks; Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, Neither shall they learn war anymore. NKJV
This passage speaks of time that has never yet come on the Earth during recorded history. It may be the dream of the United Nations, but world peace is still a long way from being a reality. This passage promises a time when people will be willingly following the leadership of God, and when nations will be at peace.
There is quite strongly the idea of a Kingdom of God here, because there is the kingly leadership of God over the whole world. There is a vision of all nations flowing to the mountain of God to worship and obey him. This speaks of the political aspect of the Kingdom of God actually being a kingdom. There is also the vision of world peace, which is another aspect of the age to come that is seen in both the old and new testaments.
The Reformed Earth
Isaiah 65:17: For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered, nor come into mind. 18. But be you glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for, behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy. 19. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and joy in my people; and there shall be heard in her no more the voice of weeping and the voice of crying. 20. There shall be no more there an infant of days, nor an old man who has not filled his days; for the child shall die one hundred years old, and the sinner being one hundred years old shall be accursed. 21. They shall build houses, and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and eat the fruit of them. 22. They shall not build, and another inhabit; they shall not plant, and another eat: for as the days of a tree shall be the days of my people, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. 23 They shall not labor in vain, nor bring forth for calamity; for they are the seed of the blessed of Yahweh, and their offspring with them. 24. It shall happen that, before they call, I will answer; and while they are yet speaking, I will hear. 25. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent's food. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, says Yahweh. WEB
The introduction of a “new heavens and a new earth” is also described in the New Testament in 2 Peter 3:13 under the same terminology. In that case it is associated with the “coming of the day of God”, and links the event with the 2nd coming of Jesus. So that means that Isaiah gives a picture of life in that new earth.
There is a focus here of the joy being centred on Jerusalem. Isaiah 2 states that Jerusalem is to be the ruling centre of the “latter days” where the world is peaceful. Although this is stating a blessing for national Israel, it would be viewed in the context of the promise to Abraham in Genesis 22:18 stating that in his “seed will all the nations of the earth be blessed”. Although the primary blessing is in the redemption offered by Jesus, the plan is still worked out visibly in the context of the Abrahamic origins. That means a role for the physical nation of Israel, but the blessing and saving is for people regardless of their nationality.
This new heavens and new earth require such a transformation of the earth that it can only be associated with the “age to come” of the New Testament terminology. Strong evidence for this is the changes brought about in the nature of animals, and the idyllic conditions that have been unachievable under human rule.
However, compared against the “age to come”, there are some possibly surprising aspects to this prophecy of Isaiah. In particular sinners are mentioned as if they still exist in that world, even though they might be accursed. People would also still be mortal, as death is still included as an expectation, “for the child will die one hundred years old”. So although it is a vastly improved world, it does not contain all the elements that we would expect after hearing the teachings of Jesus.
The result is that this passage can only be viewed literally in the pre-millennialism model. The period of the millennium would be the time after the return of Jesus and the creation of the new earth, but while there is still mortality and sin present on the earth. Just as an inaugurated eschatology has a “now, but not yet” view of the kingdom, Isaiah and Revelation demand a “done, but not complete” view of the age to come during the millennium.
The “done, but not complete” philosophy means that with the return of Jesus, the kingdom of God arrives on earth, and the age to come is entered. In that sense it is “done”. However, the transformation at that stage is not complete. There still remains the complete removal of sin and death. Revelation indicates that the completion would not occur until after 1000 years of rule in the kingdom. After that, the process would then be complete, and the role of Jesus' reign would be complete, as described in Corinthians,
1 Cor 15:25: For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26. The last enemy that will be abolished is death. .. 28. When all things have been subjected to him, then the Son will also himself be subjected to him who subjected all things to him, that God may be all in all. WEB
There is really very little detail on the specifics of the age to come through the Old Testament and the gospels. The focus of the message is more that the Kingdom will come, and that it will cause the world to be so changed that it is considered a “new earth”. The mention of the 1000 years period at the end of Revelation though, does provide the avenue for this view of the kingdom presented in Isaiah to fit in with Kindgom gospel of the New Testament.
Chapter 11 of Isaiah contains a very similar vision to that of chapter 65, but but goes even further. It also detailing a time when there will be no violence. There is a similar change to peacefulness in the animal kingdom, but here there is a focus on a particular leader of this kindgom,
Isaiah 11:1.: There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, And a Branch shall grow out of his roots. 2. The Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon Him, The Spirit of wisdom and understanding, The Spirit of counsel and might, The Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD. 3. His delight is in the fear of the LORD, And He shall not judge by the sight of His eyes, Nor decide by the hearing of His ears; 4. But with righteousness He shall judge the poor, And decide with equity for the meek of the earth; ... 6. " The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, The leopard shall lie down with the young goat, The calf and the young lion and the fatling together; And a little child shall lead them. 7. The cow and the bear shall graze; Their young ones shall lie down together; And the lion shall eat straw like the ox. ... 9. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD As the waters cover the sea. NKJV
The person referred to as the “Branch” is understood to be referring to a promised Messiah. Christians believe that this Messiah is Jesus Christ, while the Jewish people believe he is yet to appear. Under the just rule of the Messiah, people are promised peace and prosperity. This is the sort of world that many people have hoped for, and are still hoping for.
The book of Daniel also contains many prophecies and promises of future times. Daniel is a particularly useful book in our times because the prophecies cover a wide range of time-scales. In chapter 2, a vision is shown that describes the progression of world empires from 600BC to present times. It identified Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman and a divided empire. In the end, however, it described how these empires would be replaced by a kingdom of God.
Daniel 2:44.: "And in the days of these kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people; it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever. NKJV
This kingdom corresponds well with the images given by Isaiah. It is an everlasting kingdom of God with universal acceptance.
This is consistent with a promise given in the early days of Israel, while they were in the wilderness between Egypt and the promised land of Israel. After the people rebelled against God on one occasion, Moses asked God for their forgiveness, and received a far-reaching reply from God. Moses said,
Numbers 14:19.: "Pardon the iniquity of this people, I pray, according to the greatness of Your mercy, just as You have forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now." 20. Then the LORD said: "I have pardoned, according to your word; 21. "but truly, as I live, all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD -- NKJV
In this case God was promising that the earth would be filled with His glory. This is the message that is consistent with the other prophecies, and the central hope of Christianity.