I have been considering the subject of the Kingdom of God (KoG) in my recent studies on eschatology. I believe God’s kingdom is eschatological, or in other words, it is still future. I also believe it is a geo-political kingdom, one that entails physical territory and physical subjects. Most importantly a restored, national Israel will be at the center of this KoG with Jesus Christ as its appointed, sovereign monarch Whose reign will radiate from Jerusalem to the entire world.
As I have been pointing out, those of the covenant reformed persuasion equate the KoG with the NT Church. Rather than seeing the KoG as a yet future reality, Christ’s reign is said to be happening now over His people, the Body of Christ. The KoG is not a physical kingdom involving territory in the land of Israel, but it is a spiritual kingdom. Thus, those promises of a restored Israel in their land are not to be understood in such a wooden literalism as to imply a physical, ethnic nation returned to their land, but rather are to be understood in a spiritual sense, of Christ reigning over a spiritual body of believers comprised of people from all over the earth. They are Abraham’s true seed (Romans 4), identified by their faith in God and those promises of making Abraham’s offspring a great nation are being fulfilled as people from all over the world come to faith in Christ.
With my last post, I reviewed biblical passages stating how national Israel will be restored to their territorial land. With this post I want to review the idea that the KoG is more than just a spiritual kingdom, but it also has a material dimension to it.
There seems to be a conviction among many of the covenant reformed, particularly those of an amillennial perspective, that a strong dichotomy must exist between the material and the spiritual. When Adam fell, his sin plunged the entire world into sin. The earth and all that it contains has been placed under a curse. Our hope is not with a renewal of this sin cursed world, but it is looking forward to an entirely new heaven and new earth where righteousness dwells.
The distinction between the material earthly realm and the spiritual heavenly realm was articulated early in Church history by a variety of apologists. The Church Father, Origen, and then later the more prominent theologian, Augustine, whose theology still shapes the Christian Church to this day, were men heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, which was in vogue everywhere during their day. Greek philosophy shaped their hermeneutics, specifically Augustine’s, when they interpreted the Bible. Augustine developed a two-kingdom model of theology that pits the KoG, or the NT Church in his thinking, against the Kingdom of Man in the here and now [Horner, 210-211, Vlach, 3-4].
As eschatological doctrine developed, it did so with that superior spiritual and inferior material division shaping the interpretation of various prophetic passages. That included a spiritualization of Revelation 20 in which the millennium is understood to be the age of the NT Church. Though it is true some modern day amillennialists have attempted to down play a sharp material-spiritual distinction, they do so at the peril of conceding their theological presuppositions to a premillennial perspective [Horner, 213, fn. 18]. An “earthly” material understanding of OT passages opens wide the notion of a messiah reigning over an earthly kingdom in Jerusalem with a restored Israel.
However, the subject before us is to consider some important passages raised by the covenant reformed that they argue present the picture of a spiritual KoG which in turn eliminates the material, physical aspects.
I’ll begin with probably the most often cited passage I know I have encountered, that being Christ’s words to Pilate as recorded in John 18:36. Upon asking Jesus why the Jews had handed Him over to the Romans, Jesus told Pilate: My Kingdom is not of the world: If my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight. The covenant reformed understand Christ’s words to Pilate to be plainly saying His kingdom, what is presupposed to be the NT Church, is solely a spiritual one; a kingdom that is heavenly in nature and to be occupied by men and women who have received eternal life by their faith in Christ. Christ’s kingdom, then, is contrasted to earthly kingdoms of this world and because Christ’s kingdom is said by the Lord Himself to not be of this world, it then must be understood as being strictly spiritual in nature.
But, is that what the Lord is saying exactly? Rather than taking Christ to be contrasting a material, worldly kingdom with a spiritual one, what is again presupposed to be the NT Church, the non-covenant reformed believe Jesus is merely telling Pilate of the supernatural origin of His kingdom: It does not originate on this earth by earthly means like military conquest or man-made political wrangling. It originates in heaven and is established by supernatural, divine means. Thus, Christ’s words do not reject the futurity of a coming eschatological kingdom of geo-political, material scope, but simply acknowledges the supernatural nature of His coming kingdom.
A second set of NT passages are also cited that seem to repudiate the physical reality of the future KoG by highlighting the spiritual dynamic of the Kingdom. I am thinking of Luke 17:20, 21 and Romans 14:17.
Luke 17:20, 21 is Christ’s words to the Pharisees who mockingly asked Jesus when the KoG would come. He responded by saying the KoG does not come by observation, or signs, but rather the KoG is said to be within you. Romans 14:17 is Paul’s exhortation to the Jews and gentiles who comprise the membership of the local churches in Rome, to put aside petty disagreements of what can and cannot be eaten by Christians. Instead, Paul writes, the KoG is about righteousness, joy, and peace.
It is argued these two passages strongly speak against the physical nature of the KoG. In fact, they clearly de-emphasize those tangible characteristics of “physicalness,” like observation, visible signs, and eating, and lifts up spiritual qualities like an internal heart change, righteousness, peace, and joy. That is why these passages are said to be speaking of a spiritual KoG, which the covenant reformed understand as the NT Church.
There are a few things to say in response:
First, I believe there is more than enough adequate revelation clearly telling us the NT Church is not the anticipated eschatological KoG. In fact, I believe the overwhelming amount of biblical discussion on the KoG presents it as a material, eschatological kingdom distinct from the NT Church. However, I do believe it is important to note how the writers of the NT speak to the salvific certainty of the chosen subjects of the KoG. They are now, presently declared to be in the KoG simply by their individual identification with the person of Christ.
It is similar with how all saints have been declared to be recipients of eternal life now, even though eternal life still awaits, or that God’s people are sitting in the heavenlies with Christ, even though we currently exist in this realm. The same is with the subjects of the KoG. They exist presently as subjects of the KoG, though they still await its eschatological arrival.
Second, in Luke 17, Christ’s words were to the Pharisees. They wanted a political Messiah who would overthrow the Romans immediately. Though the eschatological KoG will certainly bring in an overthrow of the world’s earthly, man-made kingdoms, Christ’s ministry at the time was not meant to establish that kingdom. His purpose was to gather the subjects for it through the means of the Church. The Church was unanticipated, hence the reason it is called a mystery — something that was previously unrevealed. The KoG is inaugurated with the formation of the Church, a spiritual body of believers comprised of Jews and gentiles, hence the reason Jesus describes the KoG as being within you.
Paul’s words in Romans 14 do not de-emphasize the future, material aspect to the KoG either, but rather they have similar emphasis on the current spiritual dynamic of the KoG as it is manifested in the Church. In this case, the spiritual unity and holy living which should characterize the people of God. Ultimately, the KoG is not about non-essential issues like what one eats or drinks, but it will be about righteousness and holiness.
Then lastly, probably one of the most significant passages of scripture to which the covenant reform appeal when challenging the idea of a future, geo-political KoG is Hebrews 11:8-16. The section of scripture comes from the great chapter in Hebrews on faith. It speaks of how Abraham dwelt in the land of promise, but he also waited for a heavenly city whose builder and maker is God. The covenant reformed point out that Abraham’s faith is not in being permanently established in the land of Israel, but it was in a non-physical city, one which comes from God. That passage alone eliminates any notion of a future, physical KoG dwelling on the material earth. In fact, Gary Long makes Hebrews 11:8-16 the second key presupposition when one must employ when studying eschatology [Long, 8,9]. Thus, this section in Hebrews rejects any idea of a future, earthly millennium, or so says the covenant reformed.
But, does the passage in Hebrews really eliminate the idea of an earthly KoG? Barry Horner points out that Abraham’s faith in a heavenly Jerusalem did not exclude a terrestrial location, but rather, his hope was in a kingdom in which heaven will be manifested on earth and residence there would be gloriously holy and permanent [Horner, 250]. It is not a country in heaven, but a country from heaven. Just as Jesus taught His disciples to pray, Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven, so even Christ anticipated a kingdom that was both spiritual and material.
Barry E. Horner, Future Israel. (Broadman & Holman: Nashville TN, 2007).
Gary Long, Context! Evangelical Views of the Millennium Examined. (Great Unpublished: Charleston SC, 2nd ed. 2002).
Michael J. Vlach, Platonism’s Influence on Christian Eschatology. Unpublished paper found on-line here.