A present or future kingdom?

If there is an aspect of the kingdom that divides opinion, it is the question of when. Some (e.g. dispensationalists) have a strong commitment to a future kingdom (e.g. the millennium). Others perceive the kingdom as already here in the present—realized (or at least partly realized). The “when?” question seriously divided Bible scholars as the current interest in the kingdom of God resurged over the last 150 years.

These days, most scholars recognize that the kingdom has both present and future aspects. If the kingdom of God were fully realized already, there would be no resistance against God’s reign. Evil would be gone. You’d have to bury your head in the sand to make such a claim. Conversely, if the kingdom of God is not present in any sense, then we cannot claim that Jesus is Lord (i.e. ruler). In that case, he did not conquer evil at the cross nor defeat death in his resurrection.

So, however we understand the future, most of us now recognize that the kingdom of God is already present, but not yet fully realized. “Already, but not yet” is the way it is usually described, and that phrase has helped bring the more one-eyed to see other perspectives.

But think a little deeper. Much of the effort that has gone into defending different views of when the kingdom is supposed to come is misdirected. “When?” is the wrong question. At the most basic level, the kingdom of God means God reigning. Does it make any sense to ask “When does God reign?” Surely the only meaningful answer to that question would be, “Always!” God has always reigned; he is reigning, and he will reign. “When?” is the wrong question.

In essence, that is the response Jesus gave when asked the “When?” question. In Luke 17:20 some Pharisees asked when the kingdom of God would come. We could paraphrase Jesus’ answer like this, “Wrong question. The kingdom of God doesn’t come in such a fashion that you can say, ‘Ah, it’s arrived here!’ or ‘There!’ Look, the kingdom of God is already among you.” What Jesus wanted the Pharisees to see was that the kingdom was present because the king was present.

When Jesus returned from death, he spent 40 days talking about his favourite subject—the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3). His followers responded with the “When?” question (Acts 1:7). Once again, Jesus effectively told them, “Don’t you worry about ‘when’! My Father (the eternal king) already has the authority to sort that out (1:7). I’ve already instructed you to head into the capital and wait a few days until I ascend the throne. My first act will be to empower you, my subjects, with Holy Spirit (1:4-5). He will empower you to present the case that my conviction has been overturned by a higher court. You are to begin by presenting that evidence to the capital, then throughout all the surrounding region, then to the people north of you who long ago broke away from the Davidic kingship, and then keep going until the far-flung peoples of the earth know (1:8).”

“When?” is the wrong question. God always reigns. For those who can see it, Jesus is reigning. We acknowledge him as Lord. One day, every knee will bow to his authority, and every tongue will acknowledge his right to rule. In the meantime, don’t focus on when but who.


What others are saying

Joel Green, “Kingdom of God/Heaven,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Second Edition ed. Joel B. Green et al, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013), 469:

When Is God’s Kingdom? Since the nineteenth century, no question concerning the kingdom of God has been more discussed than the one asked of Jesus by the Pharisees according to Luke 17:20: “When is the kingdom of God coming?”

Brevard Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2011), 638–640:

One of the important problems which relates to the nature of Jesus’ proclamation turns on the question of whether the kingdom is perceived as future or as a present event. Here scholarly opinion is sharply divided. … On the one hand in the eyes of Weiss and his followers (e.g. Hiers, The Historical Jesus), Jesus envisioned the coming of the kingdom as imminent, nevertheless in the future. …
On the other hand, the evidence for seeing the kingdom of God as already present in the proclamation of Jesus is also strong …
Various attempts have been made within recent years to resolve or at least to explain the tension between the present and future elements in Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God.

R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2002), 92-93:

If, therefore, I am required to decide whether Mk. 1:15 expresses a ‘realized’ or a ‘futurist’ eschatology, I must vote for the former. I believe, however, that to put the question in that form is to misunderstand the whole thrust of Jesus’ pronouncement. … The phrase ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ should not be read as a term with a single specific referent, whether a time, place, event, or situation. It is therefore not appropriate to ask whether ‘the kingdom of God’ is past, present, or future, as if it had a specific time-reference like ‘the day of Yahweh’. God’s kingship is both eternal and eschatological, both fulfilled and awaited, both present and imminent (as indeed NT scholarship now almost universally recognises, after long and futile attempts to confine the breadth of NT language within a single time reference). The purely eschatological understanding of the phrase has led to unnecessary polarisation in the exegesis of this verse. To declare that God’s kingship has come near is to say that God is now fulfilling his agelong purpose, rather than to point to a specific time or event which can be defined as either already present or still future, but not both.

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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