In Week 1 we surveyed the spectrum of belief about the Kingdom of God. Is it primarily a present reality or is primarily a future reality. Our tentative opening thesis is that the Kingdom of God is the active reign of God, manifested in both the present age, through Christ, and, ultimately, at the consummation of all things. Before expanding and testing this thesis we must take brief account of how the Old Testament sets the stage for the Gospel’s use of the phrase.
The Old Testament does not use the phrase “Kingdom of God” but it nevertheless views God as King, generally over the whole Universe, and particularly over His people. The Old Testament hope, then, is for God to manifest His reign on earth on behalf of His people. This hope is dynamic, eschatological, earthly, and ethical.
The Kingdom hope in Old Testament is dynamic and theocentric. By theocentric we mean it is all about God. By dynamic we mean active. That is, the hope is not just that God is sovereign, but that He reigns. This is illustrated in Psalm 145:10-12 “All you works praise you, Lord; your faithful people extol you. They tell of your kingdom and speak of your might, that that all people may know of your mighty acts and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.” The kingdom in this passage is not a realm (a geographic location) but the active reign of God – his might acts in history.
This reign is evident when God visits the earth. God is the God who visits, both past and future. He revealed Himself to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai. When He did so, the earth shook. His reign was evident to the entire nation. His future visit is understood in similar terms. It is both a wonderful and a terrifying experience. This Day of the Lord brings both salvation and judgment.
One problem with using the term “eschatological” is that nobody knows what it means even, and especially, among those who know what it means (that is, theologians). On one side of the spectrum it could refer to no more than a spiritual reality that gives meaning to the natural processes of history. On the other side of the spectrum it is a future, transcendental, a-historical, age-to-come. Ladd categorizes four potential meanings.
Better Age: This is the hope for a coming age that arises out of the “normal” historical process. It does not come about through cataclysmic events or by God breaking into history. That is not to say that God is absent, just that he does not circumvent the historical process. At most he is working behind the scenes. This better age is not substantially different from our present age, just of a better quality.
Golden Age and Future Age: Ladd separates these two categories, but they are, in my mind, substantially the same. The Golden/Future age only comes about through God breaking into history in a cataclysmic way. This future age brings about an entirely different kind of reality that is radically different from the present age. It is, however, a historical and earthly reality. It does not exist beyond history, per say, but is the consummation of history.
Transcendental Age: This future hope, which Ladd calls the “Age to Come” is similar to the Golden/Future age in that it comes about only through God breaking into history. More appropriately, though, this future age is conceived not as God breaking into history, but bringing it to an end. The transcendental age is the hope of the Second Temple Jewish apocalyptic writers who were heavily influenced by Greek dualism. The transcendental age does not bring about redeemed life on earth, but an escape from earth and an escape from our bodies into a purely spiritual and heavenly realm.
So, which is the hope of the Old Testament? We can rule out “Better Age” since we have already observed that God’s reign is evident when He visits the earth, when he breaks into history. As we will see below, we can rule out the “Transcendental Age,” since the Old Testament’s hope is for a new heaven and new earth. The Eschatological hope of the Old Testament, then, is a hope that God will break into history (an event which will bring about both salvation and judgment) and that he will bring about a radically new, though still earthly, reality. The hope is eschatological in the sense that it is a hope for God’s final actions, the consummation of his redemptive purposes.
We have already noted this above, but the Old Testament hope is for a new, but still earthly, reality. There is no matter/spiritual dualism in the Old Testament, but a fundamental unity.
The earth shares in the fate of humanity. When Adam and Eve sinned, the earth was the subject of the curse. When Israel was called to enter the Promised Land, the fate of the land was tied to the obedience or the rebellion of the people. A faithful people led to a fruitful land. When God warned of exile, he used the metaphor the land “vomiting” the people out of it. When the prophets looked forward to the future visit of God, it is not surprising, then, that we see the land sharing in both the judgment and the redemption.
In judgment we see the prophecy of cosmic and cataclysmic events, the trembling of the whole heavens and earth before the Lord. In redemption we see the final hope of the “new heavens and the new earth.”
The Old Testament hope, then, is not for escape from our bodies or from the material world, but the redemption of both our bodies and the (re)creation of a new material earth.
Finally, the Old Testament presents an ethical hope. When the prophets rehearsed the history of Israel, or predicted its future, it was always with the present in mind. This is well illustrated by the book of Deuteronomy. In this grand sermon Moses reminds history of God’s mighty acts in history and holds out the rewards of blessing and the warning of curses. All this sermonizing is to bring the people of Israel, as they stand on the threshold of the Promised Land, to the point of decision, either to serve God and trust him alone, or to reject God and serve idols.
We see the same thing in the prophets. As the prophets rehearse the history of God’s people and predict the future of both Israel and the nations who surrounded her, they also call the people to repentance. The prophets were not simply seers who saw the future of national Israel – they were preachers who called Israel to repentance.
Central to the prophetic message of the Old Testament is the idea of “remnant.” The prophets knew that salvation was not something that came to individuals simply because of their nationalistic heritage or simply because they were the descendant of Abraham. No, the remnant was those who combined the word of God with the same faith of Abraham. The promise of future blessing was for the remnant – or those who God made the remnant – not for those who rejected God, turned to idols, or remained in stubborn unbelief. Therefore the call of the prophets is an ethical call. It is a call to turn to God in faith.