In the Kingdom sphere of thinking, several considerations and aspects loom large, including sovereignty/submission, prophecy/fulfillment, and Jesus as Messiah-King. Another is the natural antagonism between earthly kingdoms and God’s Kingdom. If this inherent antipathy does not arise in some measure, something is out of whack—perhaps (1) one’s Kingdom thinking is not as Kingdomy as it purports to be, or (2) one’s perception of the promise of earthly kingdoms is too rosy.
The reverse-magnetism between human government and God’s reign—one key element of Kingdom thinking I take as foundational—is difficult for optimists and Religious Righters (and most Christians) to come to grips with. There must be some degree of antagonism,¹ though, or the scriptural admonitions to submit to human authority (e.g., Rom 13 and 1Peter 2) would not have been written. In this age, Christians may find reasonably uncompromising ways to serve people in communities,² but I would urge them not to give wholehearted efforts to human government.
Two days ago, on a supposedly Christian radio show called Washington Watch, I heard a sincere woman whose message was all about “stepping up” and “becoming active” to save our country. Those near-clichés are reasonable secular exhortations, but I took it that the woman, like countless others, was unaware that her articulated concerns and goals were entirely earthly. She was, in a word, communicating that she is first a citizen of the U.S., thereby negating the primacy of the sojourning believer’s more lasting “citizenship.” (Keep in mind that this was a Christian radio show, not a secular one.) One citizenship, one “commonwealth” stands transcendent over the other. All my adult Christian life, this two-kingdoms concept has often been in my consciousness, and within the last year or two, it has been implanted deeper within.
I simply can’t stop thinking about the nature, extent, and ramifications of God’s Reign, and the whole matter is anything but simplistic.
I think now of a friend I’ve known mostly by e-mail but have met a couple of times. He is an avid reader and has pursued biblical topics relentlessly for many years. His disposition is better than mine—and his stubbornness, probably almost as impressive, too! When he thinks and writes of the Kingdom of God, he works hard to conclude and deduce where I’m not sure conclusions or deductions are possible. His interest in figuring out precise dates and meanings in prophecies is intriguing, for instance, but that is not my emphasis, and I suspect it’s impossible to nail some things down. Although Hebrew Bible prophecy is a big part of the background, and although the NT texts on “Kingdom” do speak chronologically, I’m reluctant to go there. Yes, numbers and sequential predictions appear frequently, and some would say those loom large, but I counter that aspects other than the precise timing of events are more important emphases. My friend and I both perceive the importance of the Kingdom “elephant,” but we are touching and attempting to describe very different aspects of it. Whether mine is a trunk and his is a leg, or mine is the elephant’s body and his a tusk, he and I see (and major in) different Kingdom aspects.³ It was in realizing such different approaches that I purposed to set forth a few answers to certain foundational questions. . . .
When and where and what is the Kingdom of God?
I am not equal to the task of answering these questions with any certainty or authority. Yet I’m a fool for this topic and will give some weak attempts below.
First, the easy one: when is the Kingdom of God?
The answer, as I conceive of “Kingdom”: Always and forevermore. Time past, time present, and time future. To say the Kingdom of God is confined to the future is to say that God has not always been, or is not currently, in existence.
Furthermore, to say the Kingdom of God started at any point in human history (e.g., with King Saul, with the construction of the temple, with the birth or crucifixion of Jesus or with any other first-century date, or in 1948) is to deny its eternal nature.
In some sense, the Kingdom (reign) of God was a reality before the world began. It has continued, and it will always be.
“Now to the eternal king, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever! Amen” (1Tim 1:16, NET Bible).
I’ll opt for negative versions of the other two questions.
Where is the Kingdom of God not?
It is not resident in denominational headquarters—not in Rome, and not in Nashville or St. Louis or Indianapolis or Louisville or Anderson or Cincinnati, either.
It is not primarily tied to local church buildings, although there may be connections in some cases.
It does not stream forth from Jerusalem or any other place.
Jesus taught the Samaritan woman that worship was not confined to a place; neither are God and His kingly reign limited by geography.
What is the Kingdom of God not?
As a conceptual, unseen reign, the Kingdom of God defies simplistic definition or reference.
It is not the ancient state of Israel (under Saul, David, Hezekiah, Josiah, or any of the less desirable human kings).
It is not a present Israel or a future geopolitical Israel, in any form or conception (although the ties to ancient Israel are to be carefully observed and deeply comprehended).
It is not “the church” (in any past iterations, present sightings, or imagined futures).
. . . and yet the Kingdom of God may be said to envelop and subsume all those things and more.
I share these brief answers with conviction, but without any illusion that they are absolute, comprehensive, or authoritative. They do represent a few of my current understandings of these singularly significant matters.
¹ It could be argued that the antagonism was to an extent time-bound—an outgrowth of the relationship between believers and government in the first century. Did the simultaneous existence of Roman rule and second-temple Judaism cause the opposition, or was that scenario simply one manifestation of an issue inherent in the human experience? I suggest that the specifics change with time and geopolitics, but the general truth remains: human government is a different system, always existing in conceptual opposition to God. This assertion does not go to the individuals that act on the part of government, necessarily. Here, I speak only of the “Kingdom systems.” Nor does this assertion countermand the notion that human government may serve humanity, as a peacekeeping “agent” of God, in some senses.
² I know a deeply Christian man who does this very thing, and others gather around him, in a sense, in their genuine concern for a town’s well-being.
³ I might also mention here that my friend seeks to relate the new birth to the kingdom by teaching something along the lines that the “natural man” cannot be in the Kingdom. I agree that it is not the oh-so-human part of me that can effectively submit to God’s rule, but if the current me does not include some part that submits to God as King . . . if I cannot now accept and fulfill a role in the unseen Kingdom . . . then the meaning and purpose of some Kingdom scripture passages, such as those below, become elusive or simply vanish.
Matt 5:19 So anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever obeys them and teaches others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
Matt 11:11-12 “I tell you the truth, among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and forceful people lay hold of it.”
Matt 18:4 “Whoever then humbles himself like this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Luke 17:21b: “Indeed, the kingdom of God is in your midst.”
Rom 14:17 For the kingdom of God does not consist of food and drink, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.
Col 1:13 He delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of the Son he loves.
John 3:5 Jesus answered, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
John 18:36 Jesus replied, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my servants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”