Kingdom ethics. Kingdom work. Kingdom building. Kingdom focus. Kingdom ministry. Kingdom you-fill-in-the-blank.
Whether employed as an adjective or a noun, the kingdom of God has become a popular subject in contemporary Christian conversation. And for good reason. It is, after all, a massive biblical category—so massive that it’s easy for the concept to become blurry and disjointed.
With this confusion in mind, Robert Peterson and Christopher Morgan have edited The Kingdom of God, a volume intended to articulate a full-orbed view of the kingdom from the vantage points of the Old and New Testaments as well as historical, systematic, and practical theology. This latest installment in Crossway’s Theology in Community series features contributions from Bruce Waltke, Robert Yarbrough, Gerald Bray, Clinton Arnold, Gregg Allison, Stephen Nichols, and more.
I corresponded with Morgan, dean and professor of theology at California Baptist University, and Peterson, professor of systematic theology at Covenant Theological Seminary, about how “kingdom” became an adjective, whether Paul preached Jesus’ “gospel of the kingdom,” if non-Christians can do kingdom work, how we misunderstand the kingdom, and more.
The word “kingdom” has become something of a catch-all. So what is the kingdom of God?
That’s a great observation, and you ask a hard question. Yes, “kingdom” has become a buzzword—much like “gospel”—and it connotes a variety of things, depending on context and who’s talking.
In his two chapters on kingdom in the OT, Bruce Waltke proposes that the Bible bears witness to two forms of God’s kingdom: a “universal kingdom” and a “particular kingdom.” God’s universal kingdom refers to the activity of God in exercising his sovereignty over all things. God parcels out to the nations their lands (Deut. 2:5, 9; 32:8), rules over their kings (2:30), and even gives them their gods (4:19; 29:25-26). God’s particular kingdom refers to his exercise of authority over subjects who, because of faith in and love for him, serve him alone. These aspects of the kingdom emphasize the Lord’s comprehensive kingship: he is King of all the earth (2 Kings 19:15; Isa. 6:5; Jer. 46:18; Pss. 29:10; 99:1-4), and of his chosen people in particular (Ex. 15:18; Num. 23:21; Deut. 33:5; Isa. 43:15).
In his two chapters on kingdom in the NT, Bob Yarbrough explains that the kingdom is enigmatic in nature. Yet in spite of this mystery, it still communicates something about the way things are meant to be. It points us to who God is as Ruler over his realm, who his people are as participants in his kingdom, what his church should be in giving praise to and witnessing for their King, and how the already/not yet tension should cause us to anticipate the King’s coming in a world still marred by sin. God’s kingdom is an all-encompassing force, meant to point his people to their ultimate King. As such, the kingdom tells us where true life is to be found—and it requires a response.
What’s the “gospel of the kingdom” that Jesus preached? Did Paul preach this gospel?
Yarbrough’s chapters are again noteworthy here, as he notes that the “gospel” is associated with the kingdom (e.g., Matt. 4:23; 9:35; 24:14) and examines the relationship between “gospel” and “kingdom.” The gospel of the kingdom is “good news,” a “favorable announcement.” It transmits kingdom tidings. It announces that the reign of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is now present in a new way, to a new extent, and for a new purpose. Most importantly, it is inextricably bound to Jesus the King.
Yarbrough examines each reference to kingdom in Paul and proposes that the kingdom of God (or of Christ) is a foundational concept in his theology, much like an invisible software program running at all times in the background as Paul ministers and composes his letters.
What are some of the most common misunderstandings about the kingdom in Reformed evangelical circles today?
We don’t like to paint with such a broad brush, as there are notable exceptions. But in general, we’d say there’s a general neglect of this central biblical teaching. Though “kingdom” is a frequently used adjective, it’s rarely the focus of the discussion. For example, when the kingdom is mentioned, it’s often in the midst of theological sparring over the relationship of Israel and the church, the nature of the millennium, evangelism and social justice, and so forth. When we do address it, we tend to focus on the teachings of Jesus without any regard for the teachings of the OT. And how often do we hear about the kingdom in Acts, the General Epistles, or Revelation?
This may be in part why people often say that in Jesus the kingdom of God is “already and not yet.” We agree. But aren’t there also already-and-not-yet aspects of the kingdom in the OT? Indeed there are, and these are almost definitional to all salvation history prior to the consummation, when the already and not yet finally merge. Because of this neglect, we wonder whether Jesus’ teachings about the already and not yet of the kingdom are understood as often as they’re cited. His kingdom in some sense fulfills OT prophetic expectations and unites some of its teaching of the “not yet” to that of the “already.” Yet he doesn’t bring the kingdom in its final sense, and thus it’s still already and not yet.
If Jesus possesses all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18), in what sense is Satan the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2) and the “god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4)—with “power” (Acts 26:18) to “bind” (Luke 13:16) and to “oppress” (Acts 10:38)?
Here’s a good example of why it’s important to understand the kingdom as universal in one sense and particular in another. It’s also an example of why it’s critical to hold to the tensive already and not yet of the kingdom (compare Eph. 1:20-23 to 1 Cor. 15:22-28).
Clint Arnold’s chapter addresses this question and more as he clarifies that Jesus proclaims and brings God’s kingdom in a context of strenuous opposition—chiefly from Satan. The kingdom comes, but neither instantly nor peacefully. And it comes through destroying every rule and power, through putting enemies under his feet, through putting all things in subjection to him, through conflict and conquest over the kingdom of Satan (1 Cor. 15:22-28). Indeed, creation is presently subject to two conflicting realities, one that’s not eternal and one that is. Evil in its tyranny is real and destructive, but temporary. God’s rule is universal, but still in the process of bringing evil to an end.
Can non-Christians do “kingdom work”?
Non-Christians cannot represent Christ or his particular reign. They can promote beauty, truth, justice, and goodness in a broad way. But since they don’t submit themselves to Christ’s reign, they cannot do kingdom work, which is by nature Christological.