In week 1 we noted that “Kingdom of God” has a present and a future usage in the New Testament and, in an attempt to reconcile the tension that creates scholars and theologians have tended to focus on one aspect of the Kingdom of God to the detriment of the other.
This initial presentation is an over simplification of the usage of Kingdom of God in the Gospels. In The Presence of the Future Ladd outlines four usages. Although I find Ladd’s categories not quite as distinct as he presents them, they are still helpful for understanding the problem.
Kingly Reign, or Kingship
In one group of usages, “Kingdom” could be rather easily be translated “kingship” or “kingly reign.” So, Luke 1:33 “His kingdom will never end” means “His reign never ends.” Likewise, John 18:36 could be rendered “My kingship is not of this world.”
Age to Come
Another group clearly equates “Kingdom” with the “Age to Come.” In Matthew 7:21 Jesus warns “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father…” In Matthew 8:11 Jesus says that “many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” In Mark 9:47 the “kingdom of God” is presented as the alternative to “hell.”
Something present among men
A third usage presents the Kingdom of God as something which is present among men. It is something which men can seek (Luke 12:31-32) and which Jesus says is made manifest and obvious by the fact that He is driving out demons (Matthew 12:28). Another passage of interest in Luke 17:21 where Jesus contrasts those people who are looking for the future and external Kingdom by saying “nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”
Some place which people are now entering
Finally, the Kingdom is perceived as a realm which people are now entering. See Matthew 21:31b (“tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of you”) and 23:13 (“You [Pharisees] do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” Note the present tense of the verbs.
Is there a way to reconcile these differences?
First, I think it is permissible to simply say that the phrase “Kingdom of God” is used differently in different contexts and that the first ask of the interpreter is to understand the usage within its context. Other than the texts above, it is extremely difficult to categorize each use of “kingdom” discretely into one of these four categories.
One unifying theme, however, is to understand the “kingdom of God” as the “active reign of God.” This theme obviously fits with the first usage. In the second case, the Age to Come is understood as the consummation of the reign of God. As for the third, Jesus can say that the “kingdom of God is in your midst” because He himself was in their midst, demonstrating the reign of God by healing the sick, casting out demons, raising the dead, etc. Finally, in the case of the fourth usage, the “realm” which people are now entering is conceived of as the spiritual realm wherein God reigns in a particular way, both as Lord and as beneficiary of the blessings of His kingdom.
Active or Abstract
What is proposed above is quite similar to the Rabbinic understanding of the Kingdom of God, but with one important difference. The Rabbinic understanding was primarily abstract, understanding the reign of God as simply as the sovereignty of God. That is, people “enter” the Kingdom of God when they submit to God’s reign. The Rabbinic understanding puts the “active” portion of the Kingdom of God on people. God is in charge, for sure, but people are the ones called to take action.
By contrast, Jesus emphasizes the action of God. Jesus’ ministry (which embodied the reign of God) was marked by action. He spoke of God as the Father who seeks, pursues, invites, and judges. When Jesus instructs his disciples to pray “your Kingdom come” he is saying more than just “I submit to your reign.” He is saying, “Bring your active reign to earth.”