One of the main subjects that Jesus teaches about is the Kingdom of God. It is the subject of most of His parables. The disciples want to know who will be the greatest in the Kingdom. And yet there is a lot of confusion about what the Kingdom of God is.
As you read through the gospels you’ll see the phrase “the Kingdom of God” used quite often. In Matthew it is also called the Kingdom of Heaven. This probably adds to the confusion on the subject as well. If nothing else, we can at least say that we are in good company because the disciples didn’t have a good grasp on what the Kingdom of God was either.
The disciples understand that Jesus was a king. They grasp that He is the Messiah. The problem begins when they combine the two ideas together. There was an ancient expectation that the Messiah would be a king who would reign on David’s throne. And this expectation wasn’t wrong, it just missed the cross. Jesus will reign as an earthly king but first He had to go to the cross and that is what the disciples – and basically everyone else – missed.
Our confusion on the Kingdom of God lies mostly in when and where its fulfillment will be. Is it a present or future event? A careful reading of scripture indicates that there are actually what we might consider to be three manifestations of the Kingdom of God.
To begin with, there is indication that the Kingdom of God began with Jesus’ coming or at least once His ministry began. Matthew 12:28 says:
But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.
Jesus was driving out demons and He didn’t say that this was an indication that the Kingdom would come, but that it had come. Similarly Matthew 21:31 says:
“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”“The first,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.”
Once again, Jesus teaches the Kingdom of God as a present day reality. Tax collectors and prostitutes were entering the Kingdom of God ahead of the Jewish leaders. It was not something that would happen in the future but was already occurring in Jesus’ day.
Despite indications that the Kingdom of God was present with Jesus, there are reasons to believe that it was also future. John the Baptist began preaching about Jesus’ coming. In Matthew 3:1-2 we see:
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.
Of course John’s preaching could have been fulfilled as soon as Jesus’ ministry began. But then Jesus goes and preaches the same message. Mark 1:14-15 says:
14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”
So Jesus also taught that the Kingdom of God was near, not that it was already present. Just in case one thinks there’s a possibility that the Kingdom of God doesn’t actually begin until Jesus’ first miracle (which was probably after this passage in Mark), we find the same message repeated later in Jesus’ ministry. When He sends out the seventy two, he gives them these instructions in Luke 10:8-11:
8 “When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is set before you. 9 Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God is near you.’ 10 But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, 11 ‘Even the dust of your town that sticks to our feet we wipe off against you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God is near.’
But should we interpret the Kingdom of God is near the same way that we interpret Jesus is returning soon? We know that soon has been two thousand years and Jesus hasn’t returned yet. We know that time for God is not the same as it is for us. We are given a clear indication that near meant near as we commonly understand it. After Peter’s confession of Christ, Jesus says this to the disciples in Luke 9:27:
I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.
So, we have a very strong indication that the Kingdom of God would occur within a short number of years. We know historically that John was the youngest of the group and he lived the longest. Yet even he died around the turn of the first century. So this would be our timeframe for the Kingdom of God to arrive.
Despite these indicators, there is still more evidence that the Kingdom of God is still a future event. Jesus speaks about the Kingdom of God numerous times within His parables. Many of these parables can be interpreted within a present context or they could be referring to future events. But some parables are probably best understood in a future context. In Matthew 22 Jesus relates the Kingdom of God to a wedding banquet. Later in Matthew 25 He gives the parable of the ten virgins who waited for the bridegroom to come. Some were prepared with oil and some weren’t. The unprepared ones didn’t make it to the wedding banquet and Jesus closes the story with the warning in Matthew 25:13:
“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”
We have other indications that the Kingdom of God is still future as well. At the last supper, Jesus said in Mark 14:25: “I tell you the truth, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in the kingdom of God.”
We have every reason to believe that this is still future and that Jesus was not just talking about what would take place a couple of days later after His crucifixion and resurrection.
Likewise, Jesus gives a clear indication that the Kingdom of God was still future. In the Mount Olivet Discourse, Jesus lays out prophecy of what will be the signs of the end of the age. To close, Jesus gives them a parable in Luke 21:29-31:
29 He told them this parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. 30 When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. 31 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
So, with all of this in mind, when is the Kingdom of God? The answer is that it came in the past, is here in the present, and will be fulfilled in the future. The Kingdom of God first arrived with either the birth of Jesus or the beginning of his ministry. It came to be fulfilled more fully with the coming of the Holy Spirit in the church age. Finally, it will be literally fulfilled in the future when there is a literal kingdom that Jesus reigns over from David’s throne.
Does this make any sense? Is it a fair interpretation to say that the Kingdom of God came three times? Perhaps it is best explained with an illustration. I’ll even use an illustration that Jesus used but I’ll use it in a different way. Imagine going to a modern wedding banquet. When you show up, not everyone is there yet but they’re serving appetizers at least. If for some reason you have to leave at this point, you might say that you were at the banquet but you also know that you didn’t really experience the full party. This was the Kingdom of God while Jesus was here on earth. The party has started but it’s not in full swing yet.
The next thing at the wedding banquet is when they start serving the meal but it’s only the first course, the soup and salad. Yes, you’ve been at the banquet and you’ve tasted the meal but everyone knows this isn’t what you’re here for. The real meal is still to come. This is the church age. We get a taste of the meal with the coming of the Holy Spirit, but this isn’t the full thing. It isn’t what everyone really came for.
Finally, the main course comes. Everyone eats their fill of the meal, they participate in festivities such as the toast and the tossing of the bouquet. And there is dancing. The party is in full swing finally. This is the future Kingdom of God when Christ returns and establishes His kingdom.
We would be accurate in saying that the Kingdom of God arrived with the coming of Jesus. We’d also be accurate in saying that the Kingdom of God is present in the church age. Only in the future will we see all of the benefits of the Kingdom of God.