The Kingdom of God
With my previous posts introducing eschatology, I laid down some necessary ground work on the subject of hermeneutics, or the basic principles one employs to study the Bible. I outlined three broad areas of hermeneutics where stark differences exist between eschatological systems when applying those principles to Scripture. Those three areas are how the OT and the NT relate to each other, how we utilize prophetic passages, and distinguishing between ethnic Israel and the Church.
Before moving on to considering the three main systems of eschatology, I believe it is necessary to define one other important element in our discussion and that has to do with defining the Kingdom of God. Here, with the idea of God’s Kingdom, we find once again a significant difference between the covenant Reformed position and the non-covenant Reformed position.
Let me begin with the covenant Reformed viewpoint. Simply put, without few exceptions, the covenant Reformed equate the Kingdom of God (KoG) with the NT Church. Though there is an understanding that a future and eternal aspect of the KoG still awaits for eternity, the Christian Church IS the KoG now in the present.
I will develop this more in later posts, but the “KoG = the Church” concept is the key factor in defining amillennialism and to a degree, postmillennialism. Both systems teach that at this point in Christian history, the KoG has come upon the earth in the form of the Christian Church which now awaits the consummation of all things at Christ’s return who will then usher in the eternal state.
The 5th century Church father, Augustine, was the first to write at length on this premise of the KoG equating the Church in his massive tome, The City of God [Culver 2005, 857]. Augustine’s position has been the one held by the Roman Catholic Church up to our modern times, and was the position adopted by the Protestant Reformers which continued to shape their eschatology even after they broke away from Catholicism.
Tragically, Augustine’s Kingdom/Church theology resulted in some disastrous circumstances throughout the course of Church history, including the marrying of Church and state, the persecution of heretical dissenters by the Church/state, and a long record of political intrigue among the various popes, bishops, kings, and emperors.
Now it is important to note that the covenant Reformed just don’t adhere to their view out of blind loyalty to historical traditions. They build their position regarding the Church/KoG by appealing to Scripture and theology.
Their first appeal is to the specific instances in the life of Jesus where He opened His ministry by pronouncing the KoG being “at hand,” a little phrase that could also be translated “drawing near,” (see for instance Matthew 10:7, Mark 1:15). The phrase “drawing near” has the idea of “coming upon.” Christ proclaimed His Gospel ministry to be directly speaking to the KoG preparing to “come upon” His audience. After His Resurrection, and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost when the Church was officially energized by God to carry forth the Gospel message of the kingdom, that KoG “came upon” the people. So it is concluded the KoG and the NT Church are one and the same.
Moreover, the apostles, particularly Paul, spoke of the KoG in terms of relationship to the Church. For instance, he writes to the Colossians that in the work of God’s salvation in their lives, they were “transferred into the kingdom of the Son of His love” (Col. 1:13). Salvation into the Church is equated with entrance into the kingdom.
Additionally, the covenant Reformed position will argue how the biblical understanding of “kingdom” is not one of a realm, with subjects and a king sitting on a throne, but rather speaks to the authority of a sovereign to rule or reign [Ladd, 122ff.]. So in other words, it is understood the Bible speaks primarily of an abstract dynamic to the KoG. That being, Christ’s spiritual authority given to Him by the Father to rule the entire earth.
So, when we consider some of the further teaching from Christ and the apostles on the KoG, the emphasis is upon a spiritual dynamic, not a literal kingdom. For example, Jesus told Pilate in John 18:36 that His kingdom is “not of this world.” Luke 17:20, 21 records Jesus as telling the Pharisees that the KoG is not observable, nor can anyone say “here it is” or “there it is,” but that the KoG is “within you.” When Paul wrote to the Roman Christians to correct some issues of division within their fellowship, he wrote in Romans 14:17 that the KoG is not about “eating and drinking, but is about righteousness and peace.” In other words, the KoG is equated with the Church, the body of Christ, a spiritual group united around the true sovereign King.
And then one final argument raised is what is considered the complete lack of any teaching in the NT on Israel being restored in a future, geo-political kingdom [Crenshaw and Gunn, 247-262].
Contrasted with the covenant Reformed position is of course the non-covenant Reformed who have an entirely different perspective on the KoG. They believe the KoG is still future and is not entirely equal to the Church in all respects. Instead, the Church is distinguished from the KoG in that it is currently composed of those individuals, both Jew and gentile, who are now presently being called out by God to be a “spiritual aristocracy” who will one day inherit the kingdom [Culver 1954, 39]. Those individuals are presently owned by Christ as King and are governed even now by His principles, but the full sense of the KoG awaits establishment for the simple reason that the King is absent, away from the scene of the kingdom [ibid]. His subjects are currently without a permanent home, as the await for that Kingdom to be established by the return of Christ.
Thus, when Jesus said the KoG was “at hand” or “drawing near,” that was not to say it had arrived and so represents a higher order of spiritual reality coexisting with the present course of affairs [Blaising, 193], but that it was as Jesus stated, “drawing near.” The idea being it is imminent in that Jesus has presented Himself as the sovereign of the KoG, but a futurity of the kingdom is still to come [Saucy, 94, 95]. That is why Christ taught His apostles, and by extension all believers, to pray “thy kingdom come.”
Just like the covenant Reformed believers, the non-covenant Reformed also build their future eschatology on Scriptural considerations. The first feature being that the OT eschatology prophesied a future KoG which would be set up on the earth. Many OT prophesies spoke to this including Daniel 2:34, 35, 44, 7:13, 14; Isaiah 2:2-4, 11:1ff, 65:17; Micah 4:1-8; Zechariah 14:9, 10 to list just a small handful.
Secondly, Christ proclaimed the promise of a kingdom when He came, see for instance his words in Matthew 11:2-6 and Luke 19:12-17. Robert Culver points out with Luke 19:12-17 that Jesus made it clear to His disciples that He expected a long period of time to transpire BEFORE His kingdom should be established [Culver 1954, 36ff.]. The parable of the ten talents given by Jesus was in response to a misconception that the KoG “would appear immediately” (Luke 19:11).
Also, in Acts 1:6, 7, the Lord again corrected the misconception of the KoG by the apostles who believed God was about the “restore the kingdom to Israel.” He told them it was not for them to know the times and the seasons, meaning they were not to concern themselves with the timing of the kingdom. Note here that Jesus did not correct their misunderstanding of the KoG as if it is to be equated with the Church, but He corrects their idea about the timing of the future kingdom’s coming.
Now, as I noted above, one crucial argument raised by the covenant Reformed against the idea of a future KoG is the complete lack of NT passages teaching Israel being restored in a geo-political kingdom. I believe that is an important argument to answer, along with the passages they claim emphasize the spiritual dimension to the KoG. What I would like to do is pause here with this brief summary of both positions and then follow up with a post specifically addressing those arguments from a futurist view of the KoG.
Craig Blaising, “Premillennialism,” in Three Views of the Millennium and Beyond, ed. Darrel Bock. (Zondervan: Grand Rapids MI, 1999).
Robert Duncan Culver, Daniel and the Latter-Days. (Revell: New York NY, 1954)
__________, Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical. (Christian Focus: Great Britain, 2005).
George E. Ladd, The Presence of the Future. (Eerdman’s: Grand Rapids MI, 1974).
Robert Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism. (Zondervan Publishing: Grand Rapids MI, 1993).
Nathaniel West, The Thousand Years: Studies in Eschatology in both Testaments. (Scripture Truth: Fincastle VA, n.d.).