Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Kingdom of God - What it's Not

Jesus spoke of the Kingdom frequently, he sent the disciples out to preach it to the people, and he told all his followers to “seek it first.” But what is it?

The message of The Kingdom is perhaps the primary focal point of the entire Bible, yet it is a broad subject – so broad that it might be easiest to begin by discussing what the Kingdom is not and some mistaken ideas about it.

Are the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven different things?

There have been a number of people, particularly dispensationalists, who have taught that the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven are different. In his bible commentary on Matthew 6, C. I. Scofield distinguishes between these Kingdoms in several ways, essentially stating that the Kingdom of God is a "universal spiritual kingdom" while the Kingdom of Heaven is the manifest Davidic Kingdom on earth. But is this distinction accurate?

In Matthew 19:23-24 Jesus says to the disciples,

“Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

Jesus uses the titles Kingdom of Heaven and Kingdom of God interchangeably. He presents the same teaching twice, repeating himself for emphasis, but in the repetition swaps the title Kingdom of Heaven for Kingdom of God.

The synoptic gospels can often be used to clarify a teaching by comparing how the same speech is rendered by different authors. Mark and Matthew give us a little insight into how these two phrases should be understood:

Mark 1:14-15
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel."

Matthew 4:17
From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

This is the same moment, the same teaching, rendered by Mark as the Kingdom of God and by Matthew as the Kingdom of Heaven. Clearly, the phrases mean the same thing and can be used interchangeably.

Is the Kingdom of God Heaven?

To answer this question one only needs to look back at Jesus’ primary teaching on prayer:

Matthew 6:9-13
Pray then like this:

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.

In this model prayer, Jesus teaches the disciples to pray that God’s Kingdom will come on earth, as it already exists in Heaven. Heaven is not the Kingdom of God - the Kingdom does exist there - but we are to pray that the Kingdom “comes” on earth in the same way it already exists in Heaven.

Is the Kingdom the “Millennial Reign” of Christ?

Many evangelicals in the West today hold to a future view of the “Millennial reign” of Christ foretold in Revelation 20 and equate that period with the establishment of the Kingdom of God. Dr. Thomas Ice, a pre-millennial dispensational apologist, writes

“[...] of an interim kingdom following Christ's return but prior to the eternal kingdom of God during which Christ will rule and vanquish all His enemies. [...] Revelation 20 gives the chronology of events and length of Christ's kingdom on this earth prior to the eternal state.”

It is this “interim kingdom" following Christ’s return that is generally known as the “Millennial Reign.”

To be clear, the distinctives of this particular view are that Jesus will return at the end of the future “Tribulation” period and rule the world from Jerusalem for 1000 years. At the end of this 1000 year period there will be a rebellion against Christ, which will be put down and bring about the destruction of the present heaven and earth, which makes room for the “new heaven and earth” and what Dr. Ice calls the “eternal kingdom.”

The most immediate problem with equating the Kingdom of God with the pre-millennial view of the Millennial Reign of Christ is that it ends after 1000 years. However, numerous passages of scripture tell us that the Kingdom will never come to an end.

Isaiah 9:6-7
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,

on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time
forth and forevermore.

The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Daniel 2:44
And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever,

Luke 1:31-33
And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

The pre-millennial view of the Millennial reign of Christ cannot be the Kingdom of God. It may be included in the Kingdom, it may be part of the Kingdom, but it itself is not the Kingdom of God.

Is the Nation of Israel the Kingdom of God?

Many Jews at the time of Jesus were expecting the Messiah to come to Israel and throw off their Roman oppressors and re-establish Israel as an independent national power. They believed the prophesies made to King David in 2 Samuel 7:10-17 meant that the Messiah would literally sit on the throne of a free Jerusalem and be a powerful political ruler of Israel.

This appears to be the disciples' understanding of the purpose of the Messiah on earth, for after Jesus has been crucified and resurrected from the dead they ask him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6)?” But Jesus appears to understand the subject differently than his followers:

Acts 1:7-8
He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

At first glance it appears like Jesus has dodged their question, however, on closer inspection Jesus appears to have answered the question, but in an unexpected way. Instead of directly answering, Jesus speaks of what is about to happen to them: they will receive power and they will witnesses everywhere, even to the end of the earth.

In his statement to the disciples, Jesus makes reference to Psalm 2; the first of what are known as the “Kingdom Psalms.” The psalmist writes in verses 7-8,

I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.

The opening verses of Romans state that, “concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.” According to Paul, Jesus was, "declared to be the Son of God […] by his resurrection from the dead," which is a direct allusion to verse 7 of the 2nd Psalm. In Acts 1:8, Jesus refers to the next verse in Psalm 2, stating that the disciples will be his witnesses to “the end of the earth.”

Jesus fulfilled verse Psalm 2:7 by rising from the dead and sends out his disciples to be His witnesses and to fulfill Psalm 2:8. Essentially, Jesus is answering His disciples, “I am setting up the Kingdom at this time, and through your witness to end of the earth it will be established.”

What all this means is that the nation of Israel is not the Kingdom of God either.

Is the Kingdom of God inside everyone?

This is a common claim made by new-agers who want a stamp of approval from Jesus. The claim is based on the King James Version rendering of Luke 17:21:

“Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”

“See,” says the new-ager, “Jesus says that the Kingdom not a real, objective thing. It is inside each of one of us.”

However, Jesus does not agree with this assessment of the Kingdom.

Luke 16:16
“The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it."

John 3:3,5
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God… Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

Jesus is clear that the Kingdom of God is something external to the individual that not everyone will see, or enter.

A better rendering of Luke 17:21 can be found in most modern translations:

“…nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”

In other words, “See! The Kingdom of God is very nearby at this moment, even within the midst of this crowd!”

What is the Kingdom of God?

After reading about a lot of things the Kingdom is not, it would be good to get a little insight into what the Kingdom is.

John 3:3-7
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’

The Kingdom is not something that anyone can just walk into, Jesus clearly and unequivocally tells Nicodemus that one must be born again to “see” or enter the Kingdom of God. Jesus says the Kingdom “is spirit” and that to enter into it one must be “born of the Spirit,” not just of flesh.

Romans 14:17
For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

This is the only passage I have found in the entire Bible which comes right out and says, “the Kingdom of God is…” It’s peace. It’s righteousness. It’s joy. But not by themselves. These things
are of the Holy Spirit. He makes them possible and without him, no one will become part of the Kingdom.

While this begins to give us an idea about the Kingdom there is much more to it than just that. To begin to bring the Kingdom into focus we need to examine it's history in both the Old Testament and the New Testament.

Next: The Kingdom of God in the Old Testament