I’m starting a new, unofficial series today, asking two experts the same set of questions but allowing them to give their own answers. Today I’m pleased to welcome two pastor-scholars to the blog:
- Patrick Schreiner, author of The Kingdom of God and the Glory of the Cross, is assistant professor of New Testament language and literature at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon.
- Nicholas Perrin, author of The Kingdom of God: A Biblical Theology, is the Franklin S. Dyrness professor of biblical studies at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.
Their books are each part of excellent series designed to help the church have accessible introductions to key themes in biblical theology.
- Schreiner’s book is in Crossway’s Short Studies in Biblical Theology series, edited by Dane Ortlund and Miles Van Pelt.
- Perrin’s book is in Zondervan’s Biblical Theology for Life series, edited by Jonathan Lunde.
I asked them the old journalistic questions—who, what, when, where, why, how—about the kingdom of God.
1. What is the kingdom of God? How would you define it?
Two difficulties present themselves in defining the kingdom.
First, since the kingdom is nowhere defined in the Scriptures, people tend to pour in their own meaning.
- Some have equated it with heaven, saying the kingdom is the place where we go when we die.
- Others have understood kingdom as referring to the church, equating the two.
- Still others have seen the kingdom of God as simply ethics, Jesus’s announcement is a call to social action.
The second problem is that the kingdom of God is a huge concept that resists categorization. It is like trying to define America or Africa; they are too encompassing to delineate. Nick Perrin therefore calls it a tensive symbol: one that suggests multiple meanings. While I agree, this still leaves the concept rather abstract. Therefore, it is good to begin with a simple definition which incorporates the primary aspects.
I define the kingdom most simply as “the King’s power, over the King’s people, in the King’s place.”
These three loci (power, people, place) interrelate, and although they can be distinguished they never can be separated. They are like strands of a rope tightly twisted together.
Virtually by definition, the kingdom of God resists definition. Nevertheless, here goes . . .
First, I want to say that the kingdom of God is a story, traceable through the pages of the biblical canon. This is not to say that the kingdom is a fictive fairy tale or a metaphor. Rather the kingdom is a divinely orchestrated narrative that has been unfolding within history—from Adam to Jesus Christ and beyond.
Second, the kingdom is an eschatological society partially but not completely overlapping with the church. (Since the kingdom includes Jesus Christ at the center, along with a countless host of heavenly beings, it is not enough to say that the kingdom is made up of merely human people.)
Third, the kingdom is a sphere of reality conspiring with a community of human image-bearers in the task of restoring creation to the worship of the one true Creator God. In this respect, the telos of the kingdom is liturgical—oriented to worship.
2. Who rules over—and who lives within—the kingdom of God?
God rules over the kingdom.
Numerous references speak of God as the everlasting king.
- Psalm 45:6 says of God, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever. The scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of uprightness.”
- Psalm 93:1–2 says, “The LORD reigns; he is robed in majesty. . . . Your throne is established from of old; you are from everlasting.”
- In Psalm 47:2, the Lord is called “a great king over all the earth.”
However, God also chose to exercise his kingship through his agents.
Adam, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were to be his kings, but they all failed. So a new and true King is promised. Through Jesus, Israel’s God reclaims his sovereign rule over Israel and the world.
If this is the case, then those who surrender to God’s chosen King are those who live within the kingdom. This means Christians already inhabit the kingdom as they are united with Jesus, but also await the coming of the kingdom in its fullness (see the next question).
If Adam was the initial royal-priestly ruler of the kingdom, Jesus Christ is our Second Adam, the singular one who through his death, resurrection, and ascension earned the right to reign over the kingdom of God eternally. Yet until Jesus returns in glory, the kingdom remains a conflicted reality.
In one sense, when someone comes to Jesus by faith, that person “enters the kingdom.”
Yet we have to remember that this is actually shorthand way of saying, “This person is joining the visible community that will in turn principally operate on the charitable assumption that such confessions are credible.”
Absolute certainty regarding one’s participation in the kingdom will not be finally secured until the end of history. At that time we will reign with Christ. The distinction between the present community and the eschatological community is crucial not least because it is important to distinguish the kingdom of God from the visible church.
3. When does the kingdom come? Is it already here, yet to come, or somehow both?
The kingdom is both here and not fully here (already/not yet).
The presence of the kingdom is affirmed in numerous texts.
- Jesus announces that at the start of his ministry the kingdom of God is at hand (Mark 1:15).
- Jesus asserts that the kingdom is here in Jesus’s body: “The kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:20–21).
- The Pharisees accuse Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub (Matt. 12:24). But Jesus says the presence of the kingdom is evident in the exorcisms. “If it is by the power of the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” Jesus therefore is the kingdom in person (αὐτοβασιλεία). He is the king of the kingdom and therefore at his coming the kingdom arrived.
However, there are also indications that the kingdom was not present in its fullness.
- In Luke 19 Jesus tells a parable because they supposed the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.
- In the Lord’s Prayer he teaches his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom would come.
- Paul speaks of people not inheriting the kingdom (1 Cor. 6:9) and Jesus handing the kingdom over to the Father at the end (1 Cor. 15:24).
- In Revelation it speaks of the kingdom coming.
Therefore, it is best to let these two realities stand side by side rather than abandoning one of them. The kingdom has come, but is also still coming.
Vos and Ladd were right: the kingdom is, paradoxically, an already but not yet reality. But how we break this paradox down may leave room for variation and disagreement.
For my money, the appearance of Jesus signaled a definitive and all-encompassing arrival of the kingdom on the level of eternity, but also an arrival that is neither definitive nor all-encompassing in our perception of time. When Jesus appeared, he introduced a new era that involved not just a chunk of chronological time but within that timespan something we call eternity.
Think of it this way: If I were to put a stick of dynamite in a watermelon and explode it, all I would see would be a singular event (BOOM!). However, if we were to film the same event using time-lapse photography, we would see that the same explosion could also be understood as a series of mini-events (the skin of the watermelon breaking, the first pulp penetrating the outer shell, the shattering of the fruit—all in successive order). The kingdom is already and not yet because we have two different frames of reference: temporality and eternity. Both are true without contradiction. You might even say that Jesus changed the very nature of time.
4. Where is the kingdom found? Is it only a dynamic rule, or does it also have boundaries and inhabit space?
The dynamic sense (rule or power) of the kingdom has been the leading view since Gustaf Dalman’s study Die Worte Jesu in 1898. George Eldon Ladd popularized this view in his numerous works on the kingdom, arguing that the abstract idea is the primary meaning.
However, power is empty without people and place. Place also affects people, and people affect place. This interrelationship between the three concepts is not meant to bewilder you, but to show that these concepts are concomitant; we can’t rip one of them out and use it as a primary definition or description of the kingdom. Gerhard Lohfink memorably said, “A kingdom without a people is no king at all but a figure in a museum.” What this means is that the kingdom does have boundaries and inhabits space.
This space is defined not only physically, but relationally and ideologically. John Howard Yoder was right to assert, “The kingdom of God is a social order, but not a hidden one.” The primary boundaries of the kingdom in the present are therefore found in the church. While the church is not the kingdom in its fullness, the church is a manifestation of the kingdom, or an outpost of the kingdom. As the church follows the King, they create spaces that look and smell like the kingdom. These spaces are both physical and relational.
The kingdom of God occupies a definite space, even if that space cannot be easily staked out in our three-dimensional reality.
When people say that the kingdom is God’s dynamic reign but not a space (a typical Platonic move very commonly found in the scholarly literature), they are effectively forcing their definition of the kingdom to fit their neat categories of space. (This is similar to the problem of how we think about time.)
But think about the inconsistency here, at least for scholars who—like myself—insist on Jesus’s ability to perform miracles or rise from the dead. On the one hand, if we insisted that Jesus’s miracles must obey the laws of scientific predictability, we would quickly conclude that the miracles never happened. (A number of Jesus scholars have taken this route.) However, the very logic which asks us to be open to the miraculous (a logic which usually asks us to check our naturalistic assumptions) should also invite us to construe kingdom space not as a mere metaphor but as a reality taking shape in history only to be finally realized at the eschaton.
5. How—and why—are Christians to live in the kingdom today?
If the kingdom is the King’s power, over the King’s people, in the King’s place, then followers of Jesus are called to imitate Jesus in how he interacted with these three concepts. We are to employ the power God has given us, for the welfare of people, to bring them to their true home. We are to do this because Jesus called his disciples to exemplify and spread the same kingdom message as Jesus.
Though the Wisdom Tradition is regularly disconnected from the kingdom story, they give a helpful vision of what life in the kingdom looks like.
- Life in the kingdom means delighting in the law of the Lord. The Psalms open by saying, “Blessed is the person who walks not in the counsel of the wicked . . . but his delight is in the law of the LORD” (Ps. 1:1–2).
- Life in the kingdom means fearing the Lord. “Fear God and keep his commandments for this is the whole duty of man” (Eccles. 12:13). These commandments are specified by Jesus as loving God and others.
- Life in the kingdom means the people of the king will suffer righteously for the Lord.
Job, the Psalms, and Lamentations all concern the suffering of God’s people but points to how the kingdom will come.
Jesus came embodying these three realities. He delighted in God’s will, feared God, and suffered righteously. He did this for the sake of his people, to bring them to their true home. He demonstrated his power over the forces of darkness and the reign of sin. However, his power was perfected in his suffering on the cross. If the kingdom was the goal, then the cross was the means. At the cross, the people of God are saved from death, delivered from their sins and dark spiritual beings, and set on the path to returning home to their place. But this only happens through blood.
What this means for people today is that they best way to embody the kingdom is to take up our cross, follow Jesus, link arms with other believers in the church, and tell others about Jesus and how they can enter this good kingdom.
Jesus’s kingdom has its own distinctive set of ethical standards—ways of doing business. One could do no better than to say that hospitality, forgiveness, and faithfulness are the three outstanding values of the kingdom. By sharing bread, offering forgiveness, and remaining faithful, we set ourselves apart as image-bearing royal-priests. These three ideals (each tied to specific practices, qualities, and attitudes) set Jesus’s kingdom followers apart.
We have also been tasked with “signing” the kingdom. Such signing occurs when we proclaim the gospel, carry out spiritual warfare (exorcism), and offer healing (physical, emotional, or spiritual—the ancient world did not neatly distinguish between these three). Jesus performed these kingdom signs as an indication that new creation was on its way. In Acts, Luke tells the church’s story in such a way to underscore that the apostles were up to much the same thing.
Our job as Christians is not first and foremost to convert others but to sign the kingdom and then let the “fishing of men” take its natural place within that agenda. We operate this way not because God needs us, but because this is the appropriate response to the divine drama that through Christ is unfolding in our midst.