In the last two centuries, studies on the kingdom of God got bogged down in debate over when the kingdom comes. Is it already present now, or is it something Jesus will set up when he returns?
Wrong question: focusing on the When has obscured the Who.
Some divided history into dispensations (eras), reserving the “kingdom of God” for a future 1,000 reign of Jesus in Jerusalem over the world. According to this view, most of the Old Testament prophetic texts remain unfulfilled in his first coming, so Jesus still needs to fulfil them at his second coming. Therefore most of what Jesus said is still to be fulfilled in the future, so his teaching about the kingdom is not directly relevant to how we live in the present.
Others insisted that Jesus’ teachings are about the present, about how we run society now. This “social gospel” had little interest in a future cataclysmic event when Jesus suddenly returned to set the world right. The kingdom of God is now.
Eventually Bible scholars realized both camps were being myopic. Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God cannot be relegated to some future time, but neither is it completely fulfilled in the present. They settled the argument by agreeing that the kingdom is already present, but is not yet present in its fullness: already, but not yet.
“Already, but not yet” was a helpful catchcry to get us back on track, but this solution highlights that we were fighting over the wrong question. If “kingdom of God” means God reigning, When is the wrong question. The only meaningful answer to the question, “When does God reign?” is “Always!” God’s reign was present in creation, present at Sinai, and present in the Davidic kingship. Even after the exile, the Psalms and the Prophets insist God reigns. The kingdom of God was present in Jesus’ life, present when he was raised out of death, present when he was enthroned with all authority in heaven and earth. The kingdom is present wherever people acknowledge Jesus as Christ and Lord (God’s anointed king and our ruler).
We live in hope that the kingdom of God will be fully realized when every knee bows to him and every tongue gives him allegiance, when he appears to set right every injustice, including raising the dead. The earth has been God’s kingdom since first established in Genesis 1, and it is fully restored as his kingdom in Revelation 22.
God’s kingdom was never about When, always about Who.
When they asked Jesus the When, he explained it was the wrong question, the wrong way of looking at it:
Luke 17 20 Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, 21 nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.” (NIV)
The Pharisees were looking for the restoration of Israel’s geographical boundaries, so they missed what was right in front of them. The kingdom was among them because the king was among them!
In our day, we make another mistake. I still hear people say, “The kingdom of God is within me.” That’s nonsense: the kingdom is a community under a king, and you can’t have a community within you. The “you” in this verse is plural; the kingdom is among us, not within me.
The kingdom is the king and his people. If the Pharisees could see it, their king was right there. They did not see the king. They asked When, not Who.
In the beginning, God established two realms where he reigned: one beyond us (the heavens), and one where we live (the earth). His kingship was threatened when his servants grasped power instead of honouring their king. That’s called sin, and we experience it as oppression under evil. So how is God’s kingship (the kingdom of God) restored?
That’s the whole story of Scripture: Abraham, Moses, the judges, King David and his descendants, the Psalms and the Prophets. The pivotal moment comes when the King himself enters the story in the person of Jesus to confront evil (his cross), overthrow the reign of sin and death (his resurrection), and receive the throne (his ascension).
The good news is the restoration of God’s kingship through in his Anointed. He already reigns now, and he will continue to reign until everything is restored under his kingship. We live in this dramatic story of his kingship: it’s being played out in our lifetime.
So, how do we make the story about the Who rather than the When? Like this:
1 Corinthians 15 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For he “has put everything under his feet.” … 28 When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.
The good news of the kingdom isn’t in the face of a clock. It’s in the face of the king.