THE DEFINITION OF THE KINGDOM
Although the main focus of this essay is to put forward a biblical timeline for the outworking of the Kingdom of God, it would certainly be of no avail if we did not work from a clear and concise definition of what the Kingdom of God is. Defining the Kingdom of God has been an elusive task throughout much of church history. Many different interpretations of what the Kingdom of God is have been put forward and are as diverse as they are many. But, most of these various interpretations are derived when contriving a definition from certain isolated texts.
Instead, when one focuses on the whole of Scripture’s testimony of the Kingdom of God, a working definition can be reached. Thomas Schreiner contended that “the Kingdom of God has a threefold dimension, focusing on God as King, on human beings as the subjects of the King, and the universe as the place where his kingship is worked out.” Geerhardus Vos formulated a view of the Kingdom strictly from the teachings of Jesus, saying that “to Him the Kingdom exists there, where not merely God is supreme, for that is true at all times and under all circumstances, but where God supernaturally carries through his supremacy against all opposing powers and brings men to the willing recognition of the same.”
In both of these definitions, we see a recurring theme: they both include the sovereign rule and reign of God as a crucial aspect of the Kingdom of God. If the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible’s claim that “the key to an understanding of the kingdom of God is that the basic meaning of the Greek word basileia, as of the Hebrew malkūt, is rule, reign, dominion” is to be trusted, then we find that George Ladd offers a perfectly acceptable and working definition: “The Kingdom of God is His kingship, His rule, His authority…it is not a realm or a people but God’s reign.” It is this definition that will be referenced in this work.
THE TIMELINE OF THE KINGDOM
The Two Ages
A key component to understanding the “when” of the kingdom is to have a firm understanding of the way that the Bible talks about time and the way that it is divided. Scripture makes mention of two ages: the age that is and the age that is to come. Jesus specifically refers to this concept in Matthew 12:32 when he says that “whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”
Paul also mentions this two-age structure in Ephesians 1:21, saying that Christ has been elevated “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.” When it comes to divisions of time as the Biblical writers understood them, it is very clear that the majority of history can be described as falling within these two ages (Mark 10:29-30; Matt. 24:3).
The Nature of the Two Ages
The first of the two ages is “this age.” This age is the period of time in which we currently live—the same period of time that is under the curse of sin. “This age is an evil age; it is characterized by sin and unrighteousness. It is an age from which men need deliverance….” Because of this, John Frame accurately notices that “Scripture describes this age in ethical terms.” Such as Paul’s statement that this is “the present evil age” (Gal. 1:4); his charge that all believers must take heed to “live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:12); and his referring to “the wise in this age” (1 Cor. 3:18), “the debater of this age” (1 Cor. 1:20), and “the rulers of this age” (1 Cor. 2:8). Thus, Frame accurately concludes that “the present age, even to believers, is a source of temptation.”
The age to come, however, is the complete antithesis of what this current age has to offer. In that age, “the dwelling place of God [will be] with man; He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:3-4). Yes, certainly He will “make all things new” (v. 5). This, along with the comparison of other Scriptures, causes Ladd to offer the conclusion that “eternal life, The Kingdom of God, The Kingdom of Heaven, Salvation, and the Age to Come all belong together”—they are interchangeable terms.
The Transition from This Age to the Age to Come
The Kingdom of God, then, exists in the Age to Come. However, there is a tension that arises when the careful reader notices that Jesus and the apostles clearly refer to the kingdom as being already present in their time (Matt. 12:28; Luke 17:21; Col. 1:13). In Luke 17:21, Jesus told the Pharisees that the Kingdom of God was in their midst. Paul describes present day believers as “those on whom the end of the ages as come” (1 Cor. 10:11). Therefore, “the remarkable thing about NT teaching…is that in one sense the ‘age to come’ has already appeared in Christ.” This means that we have “tasted the powers of the age to come” (Heb. 6:5).
So, there is a present reality of the Kingdom of God here on Earth in the lives of present day believers, albeit limited in scope and power. But there is also a future expectation of a more perfect realization of the Kingdom that will be fulfilled at the second coming of Christ. “Essentially the future kingdom will consist, like that of the present, in the rule of God established and acknowledged in the hearts of men. But at the glorious coming of Jesus Christ this establishment and acknowledgment will be perfected.” The implication of all of this is that we currently live in an “overlap” of the Age that Is and the Age to Come. The Age to Come was inaugurated at the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; continues simultaneously, however only in part, with the Age that Is; and will be fully consummated at Christ’s Second Advent, which also marks the end of the Current Age. As Geerhardus Vos puts it, we presently live a “semi-eschatological” existence.
THE FOCUS OF THE KINGDOM
Because the Age to Come has been inaugurated, however, not consummated, Jesus can say things like “seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt. 6:33). The benefits and privileges of the Age to Come are already upon us in Jesus Christ. Because the Kingdom is here, we can have confidence that He will provide all of our needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:19). By placing its focus on Christ and His Kingdom, the church can avoid the manifold distractions of this world and truly live life abundantly.
Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1938.
Elwell, Walter A., and Barry J. Beitzel. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988.
Frame, John. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing Company, 2013.
Ladd, George Eldon. The Gospel of the Kingdom. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1959.
Schreiner, Thomas. The King in His Beauty. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013.
Vos, Geerhardus. The Pauline Eschatology. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1986.
—. The Teaching of Jesus Concerning the Kingdom of God and the Church. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958.
George Eldon Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1959), 18.
Thomas Schreiner, The King in His Beauty (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), xv.
Geerhardus Vos, The Teaching of Jesus Concerning the Kingdom of God and the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1958), 50.
Elwell, Walter A., and Barry J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 1269.
Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom, 28.
John Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, PA: P&R Publishing, 2013), 88.
Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom, 33
See Ladd’s discussion in The Gospel of the Kingdom, pp. 31-34. After discussing the New Testament usage of various terms, Ladd concludes that “the present age is evil, but the Kingdom of God belongs to The Age to Come. The Kingdom of God, both as the perfect manifestation of God’s reign and the realm of completed redemptive blessing, belongs to The Age to Come.”
Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1938), 409.
Geerhardus Vos, The Pauline Eschatology (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1986), 38. Also, refer to Figure 1 at the end of this essay.