What is the Kingdom of God?

 

George Eldon Ladd

 


 

We live in a wonderful and yet a fearful day. It is a wonderful day because of the amazing accomplishments of our modern scientific skills which have provided us with a measure of comfort and prosperity undreamed of a century ago. Great metal birds soar through the air, swallowing up thousands of miles in a few hours. Floating palaces bring to the ocean voyager all the luxuries of the most elegant hotel. The automobile has freed man to explore for himself scenes and sights which to his grandparents were contained only in story-books. Electrical power has brought a score of slaves to serve the humblest housewife. Medical science has conquered the plague, smallpox, and other scourges of physical well-being and is on the threshold of other amazing conquests.

A marvelous age, indeed! Yet happiness and security seem further removed than ever, for we face dangers and hazards of unparalleled dimensions. We have come victoriously through a war in which the foundations of human liberty were threatened; yet the columns of our newspapers are stained with unbelievable stories of the suppression of human freedom, and the fight for freedom goes on. New discoveries in the structure of matter have opened unimaginable vistas of blessing for man's physical well-being; yet these very discoveries hold the potential, in the hands of evil men, of blasting society from the face of the earth.

In a day like this, wonderful yet fearful, men are asking questions. What does it all mean? Where are we going? What is the meaning and the goal of human history? Men are concerned today not only about the individual and the destiny of his soul but also about the meaning of history itself. Does mankind have a destiny? Or do we jerk across the stage of time like wooden puppets, only to have the stage, the actors, and the theatre itself destroyed by fire, leaving only a pile of ashes and the smell of smoke?

In ancient times, poets and seers longed for an ideal society. Heriod dreamed of a lost Golden Age in the distant past but saw no brightness in the present, constant care for the morrow, and no hope for the future. Plato pictured an ideal state organized on philosophical principles but he himself realized that his plan was too idealistic to be realized. Virgil sang of one who would deliver the world from its sufferings and by whom "the great line of the ages begins anew."

The Hebrew-Christian faith expresses its hope in terms of the Kingdom of God. This Biblical hope is not in the same category as the dreams of the Greek poets but is at the very heart of revealed religion. The Biblical idea of the Kingdom of God is deeply rooted in the Old Testament and is grounded in the confidence that there is one eternal, living God who has revealed Himself to men and who has a purpose for the human race which He has chosen to accomplish through Israel. The Biblical hope is therefore a religious hope; it is an essential element in the revealed will and the redemptive work of the living God.

Thus the prophets announced a day when men will live together in peace. God shall then "judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more" (Isa. 2:4). Not only shall the problems of human society be solved, but the evils of man's physical environment shall be no more. "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them" (Isa. 11:6). Peace, safety, security-all this was promised for the happy future.

Then came Jesus of Nazareth with the announcement, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matt. 4:17). This theme of the coming of the Kingdom of God was central in His mission. His teaching was designed to show men how they might enter the Kingdom of God (Matt. 5:20; 7: 21). His mighty works were intended to prove that the Kingdom of God had come upon them (Matt. 12: 28). His parables illustrated to His disciples the truth about the Kingdom of God (Matt. 1 3: 11). And when He taught His followers to pray, at the heart of their petition were the words, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matt. 6: 10). On the eve of His death, He assured His disciples that He would yet share with them the happiness and the fellowship of the Kingdom (Luke 22: 22-30). And He promised that He would appear again. on the earth in glory to bring the blessedness of the Kingdom to those for whom it was prepared (Matt. 25:31, 34).

When we ask the Christian Church, "What is the Kingdom of God? When and how will it come?' we receive a bewildering diversity of explanations. There are few themes so prominent in the Bible which have received such radically divergent interpretations as that of the Kingdom of God.

Some, like Adolf von Harnack, reduced the Kingdom of God to the subjective realm and understood it in terms of the human spirit and its relationship to God. The Kingdom of God is an inward power which enters into the human soul and lays hold of it. It consists of a few basic religious truths of universal application. The more recent interpretation of C. H. Dodd, conceives of the Kingdom as the absolute, the "wholly other" which has entered into time and space in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

At the other extreme are those who, like Albert Schweitzer, define Jesus' message of the Kingdom as an apocalyptic realm to be inaugurated by a supernatural act of God when history will be broken off and a new heavenly order of existence begun. The Kingdom of God in no sense of the word is a present or a spiritual reality; it is altogether future and supernatural.

Another type of interpretation relates the Kingdom of God in one way or another to the Church. Since the days of Augustine, the Kingdom has been identified with the Church. As the Church grows, the Kingdom grows and is extended in the world. Many Protestant theologians have taught a modified form of this interpretation, holding that the Kingdom of God may be identified with the true Church which is embodied in the visible professing Church. As the Church takes the Gospel into all the world, it extends the Kingdom of God. An optimistic version holds that it is the mission of the Church to win the entire world to Christ and thus transform the world into the Kingdom of God. The Gospel is the supernatural redeeming Gospel of Jesus Christ, and the Kingdom is to be established by the Church's proclamation of the Gospel. The Gospel must not only offer a persona I salvation in the future life to those who believe; it must also transform all of the relationships of life here and now and thus cause the Kingdom of God to prevail in all the world. The Gospel of redeeming grace has the power to save the social, economic and political orders as well as the souls of individual believers. The Kingdom of God is like a bit of leaven placed in a bowl of dough which slowly but steadily permeates the dough until the entire lump is leavened. So is the Kingdom of God to transform the world by slow and gradual permeation.

Still others have understood the Kingdom of God to be essentially an ideal pattern for human society. The Kingdom is not primarily concerned with individual salvation or with the future but with the social problems of the present. Men build the Kingdom of God as they work for the ideal social order and endeavor to solve the problems of poverty, sickness, labor relations, social inequalities and race relationships. The primary task of the Church is to build the Kingdom of God. Those who are interested in the history of interpretation will find a brief but comprehensive survey with documentation in the author's book, Crucial Questions About the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952).

In the face of such diversity of interpretation in the history of Christian theology, many readers will react by saying, "let us be done with all human interpretations. Let us go directly to the Word of God and find what it has to say about the Kingdom of God." The perplexing fact is that when we turn to the Scriptures, we find an almost equally bewildering diversity of statements about the Kingdom of God. If you will take a concordance of the Bible, look up every reference in the New Testament alone where the word "kingdom" occurs, write down a brief summary of each verse on a piece of paper, you will probably find yourself at a loss to know what to do with the complexity of teaching.

The Word of God does say that the Kingdom of God is a present spiritual reality. "For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Rom. 14:17). Righteousness and peace and joy are fruits of the Spirit which God bestows now upon those who yield their lives to the rule of the Spirit. They have to do with the deepest springs of the spiritual life, and this, says the inspired apostle, is the Kingdom of God.

At the same time, the Kingdom is an inheritance which God will bestow upon His people when Christ comes in glory. "Then the King will say to those on his right hand, 'Come, 0 blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world"' (Matt. 25:34). How can the Kingdom of God be a present spiritual reality and yet be an inheritance bestowed upon God's people at the Second Coming of Christ?

Another facet of Kingdom truth reflects the fact that the Kingdom is a realm into which the followers of Jesus Christ have entered. Paul writes that God has "delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son" (C ol. I:13). This verse makes it very clear that the redeemed are already in the Kingdom of Christ. It may of course be objected that we must distinguish between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Christ; but this seems impossible, for the Kingdom of God is also the Kingdom of Christ (Eph. 5:5; Rev. 11:15). Furthermore, our Lord describes those who received His message and mission as those who now enter into the Kingdom of God (Luke 16:16).

At the same time, the Kingdom of God is a future realm which we must enter when Christ returns. Peter looks to a future day when there "will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ" (II Pet. I: II). Our Lord Himself frequently referred to this future event. "Many will come from the east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 8:11).

This future coming of the Kingdom will be attended with great glory. Jesus told of the day when the angels "will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father" (Matt. 13: 41,43). On the other hand, when asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God was coming, he answered, "The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, 'Lo, here it is !' or, 'There!' for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you' (Luke 17: 20-21). The Kingdom is already present in the midst of men; and Jesus flatly discouraged the Pharisees from looking for a future Kingdom which would come with an outward display of glory.

The parables of the Kingdom make it clear that in some sense, the Kingdom is present and at work in the world. The Kingdom of God is like a tiny seed which becomes a great tree; it is like leaven which will one day have permeated the entire bowl of dough (Luke 13: 18-21). Yet on the other hand, when Pilate examined Jesus about His teaching, Jesus replied, "My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18: 36).

The very complexity of the Biblical teaching about the Kingdom of God is one of the reasons why such diverse interpretations have arisen in the history of theology. Isolated verses can be quoted for most of the interpretations which can be found in our theological literature. The Kingdom is a present reality (Matt. 12:28), and yet it is a future blessing (I Cor. 15:50). It is an inner spiritual redemptive blessing (Rom. 14:17) which can be experienced only by way of the new birth (John 3:3), and yet it will have to do with the government of the nations of the world (Rev. 11:15). The Kingdom is a realm into which men enter now (Matt. 21:31), and yet it is a realm into which they will enter tomorrow (Matt. 8:11). It is at the same time a gift of God which will be bestowed by God in the future (Luke 12:32) and yet which must be received in the present (Mark 10:15). Obviously no simple explanation can do justice to such a rich but diverse variety of teaching.

There is, however, a basic solution to this complex problem which will provide a key of meaning to open the door into treasures of understanding and blessing. This key provides the simplest approach to this involved and diverse body of Scriptural truth. It is a key which is often overlooked because of the difference between modern and ancient idiom.

We must ask the most fundamental question: What is the meaning of " kingdom"? The modern answer to this question loses the key of meaning to this ancient Biblical truth. In our western idiom, a kingdom is primarily a realm over which a king exercises his authority. Not many kingdoms remain in our modern world with its democratic interests; but we think of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as the original group of countries which recognize the Queen as their sovereign. The dictionary follows this line of thought by giving as its first modern definition, "A state or monarchy the head of which is a king; dominion; realm."

The second meaning of a kingdom is the people belonging to a given realm. The Kingdom of Great Britain may be thought of as the citizens over whom the Queen exercises her rule, the subjects of her kingdom.

The exclusive application of either of these two ideas to the Biblical teaching of the Kingdom leads us astray from a correct understanding of the Biblical truth. The English dictionary itself makes this mistake when it gives as the theological definition of the kingdom, "The spiritual realm having God as its head." This definition cannot do justice to the verses which speak of the coming of the Kingdom in outward glory and power when Christ returns. On the other hand, those who begin with the idea of a future realm inaugurated by the return of Christ cannot do justice to the sayings about the Kingdom as a present spiritual reality.

Furthermore, those who begin with the idea of the Kingdom as a people base their definition upon the identity of the Kingdom with the Church, and for this there is very little scriptural warrant.

We must set aside our modern idiom if we are to understand Biblical terminology. At this point Webster's dictionary provides us with a clue when it gives as its first definition: "The rank, quality, state, or attributes of a king; royal authority; dominion; monarchy; kingship. Archaic." From the viewpoint of modern linguistic usage, this definition may be archaic; but it is precisely this archaism which is necessary to understand the ancient Biblical teaching. The primary meaning of both the Hebrew word malkuth in the Old Testament and of the Greek word basileia in the New Testament is the rank, authority and sovereignty exercised by a king. A basileia may indeed be a realm over which a sovereign exercises his authority; and it may be the people who belong to that realm and over whom authority is exercised; but these are secondary and derived meanings. First of all, a kingdom is the authority to rule, the sovereignty of the king.

This primary meaning of the word "kingdom" may be seen in its Old Testament use to describe a king's rule. Ezra 8:1 speaks of the return from Babylon "in the kingdom" of Artaxerxes, i.e., his reign. II Chronicles 12:1 speaks of the establishment of Rehoboam's kingdom or rule. Daniel 8: 23 refers to the latter end of their kingdom or rule. This usage of "kingdom" as a human reign may also be found in such passages as Jeremiah 49:34; II Chronicles 11:17;12:1;26 30; Ezra 4:5; Nehemiah 12:22, etc.

When the word refers to God's Kingdom, it always refers to His reign, His rule, His sovereignty, and not to the realm in which it is exercised. Psalm 103:19, "The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all." God's kingdom, His malkuth, is His universal rule, His sovereignty over all the earth. Psalm 145:11, "They shall speak of the glory of thy kingdom, and tell of thy power." In the parallelism of Hebrew poetry, the two lines express the same truth. god's Kingdom is His power. Psalm 145: 13, "Thy kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and thy dominion endures throughout all generations." The realm of God's rule is the heaven and earth, but this verse has no reference to the permanence of this realm. It is God's rule which is everlasting. Daniel 2:37, "You, 0 king, the king of kings, to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, and the might, and the glory." Notice the synonyms for kingdom: power, might, glory-all expressions of authority. These terms identify the Kingdom as the "rule" which God has given to the king. Of Belshazzar, it was written, "God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end" (Dan. 5:26). It is clear that the realm over which Belshazzar ruled was not destroyed. The Babylonian realm and people were not brought to an end; they were transferred to another ruler. It was the rule of the king which was terminated, and it was the rule which was given to Darius the Mede (Dan. 5:31).

One reference in our Gospels makes this meaning very clear. We read in Luke 19: 11-12, "As they heard these things, he proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. He said therefore, 'A nobleman went into a fat country to receive a basileia and then return."' The nobleman did not go away to get a realm, an area over which to rule. The realm over which he wanted to reign was at hand. The territory over which he was to rule was this place he left. The problem was that he was no king. He needed authority, the right to rule. He went off to get a "kingdom," i.e., kingship, authority. The Revised Standard Version has therefore translated the word "kingly power."

This very thing had happened some years before the days of our Lord. In the year 40 B.C. political conditions in Palestine had become chaotic. The Romans had subdued the country in 63 B.C., but stability had been slow in coming. Herod the Great finally went to Rome, obtained from the Roman Senate the kingdom, and was declared to be king. He literally went into a far country to receive a kingship, the authority to be king in Judaea over the Jews. It may well be that our Lord had this incident in mind in this parable. In any case, it illustrates the Fundamental meaning of kingdom.

The Kingdom of God is His kingship, His rule, His authority. When this is once realized, we can go through the New Testament and find passage after passage where this meaning is evident, where the Kingdom is not a realm or a people but God's reign. Jesus said that we must "receive the kingdom of God" as little children (Mark 10:15). What is received? The Church? Heaven? What is received is God's rule. In order to enter the future realm of the Kingdom, one must submit himself in perfect trust to God's rule here and now.

We must also "seek first his kingdom and his righteousness" (Matt. 6:33). What is the object of our quest? The Church? Heaven? No; we are to seek God's righteousness-His sway, His rule, His reign in our lives.

When we pray, "Thy kingdom come,' are we praying for heaven to come to earth? In a sense we are praying for this; but heaven is an object of desire only because the reign of God is to be more perfectly realized then it is now. Apart from the reign of God, heaven is meaningless. Therefore, what we pray for is, "Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." This prayer is a petition for God to reign, to manifest His kingly sovereignty and power, to put to fight every enemy of righteousness and of His divine rule, that God alone may be King over all the world.

However, a reign without a realm in which it is exercised is meaningless. Thus we find that the Kingdom of God is also the realm in which God's reign may be experienced. But again, the Biblical facts are not simple. Sometimes the Bible speaks of the Kingdom as the realm into which we enter as present, sometimes as though it were future.

It is future in such verses as Mark 9:47, "It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell." (See also Mark 10:23, 14:25, Matt. 7:21.) In such passages the Kingdom of God is equivalent to that aspect of eternal life which will be experienced only after the Second Coming of Christ.

In other passages, the Kingdom is present and may be entered here and now. Luke 16:16, "The law and the prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and every one enters it violently." Matt. 21:31, "The tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you." Luke 11:52, "Woe to you lawyers ! for you have taken away the key of knowledge : you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering."

Our problem, then, is found in this threefold fact: (1) Some passages of Scripture refer to the Kingdom of God as God's reign. (2) Some passages refer to God's Kingdom as the realm into which we may now enter to experience the blessings of His reign. (3) Still other passages refer to a future realm which will come only with the return of our Lord Jesus Christ into which we shall then enter and experience the fullness of His reign. Thus the Kingdom of God means three different things in different verses. One has to study all the references in the light of their context and then try to fit them together in an overall interpretation.

Fundamentally, as we have seen, the Kingdom of God is God's sovereign reign; but God's reign expresses itself in different stages through redemptive history. Therefore, men may enter into the realm of God's reign in its several stages of manifestation and experience the blessings of His reign in differing degrees. God's Kingdom is the realm of the Age to Come, popularly called heaven; then we shall realize the blessings of His Kingdom (reign) in the perfection of their fullness. But the Kingdom is here now. There is a realm of spiritual blessing into which we may enter today and enjoy in part but in reality the blessings of God's Kingdom (reign).

We pray, "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." The confidence that this prayer is to be answered when God brings human history to the divinely ordained consummation enables the Christian to retain his balance and sanity of mind in this mad world in which we live. Our hearts go out to those who have no such hope. Thank God, His Kingdom is coming, and it will fill all the earth.

But when we pray, "Thy Kingdom come," we also ask that God's will be done here and now, today. This is the primary concern of these expositions, that the reader might meet the Kingdom of God, or rather, that the Kingdom of God might meet him. We should also pray, "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done" in my church as it is in heaven. The life and fellowship of a Christian church ought to be a fellowship of people among whom God's will is done-a bit of heaven on earth. "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done" in my life, as it is in heaven. This is included in our prayer for the coming of the Kingdom. This is part of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God.

 


The Gospel of the Kingdom. George Eldon Ladd. Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. Grand Rapids, MI. 1959. Pages 13-23.


A short excerpt from "Crucial Questions About the Kingdom of God" by G.E. Ladd

A short excerpt from "The Presence of the Future" by G.E. Ladd

See also "The Kingdom of God" by G.E. Ladd