The Coming King Arrives

[This is Part 3 of a series on the Kingdom of God. See Part 1 and Part 2.]

The Coming King Arrives
The Gospel of Mark is a non-stop action story. Mark moves with brevity from scene to scene, often carried along by the words “and” or “immediately.” The very first scene of his Gospel brings into focus John the Baptist, a Bear Grylls like character living in the wilderness eating from nature’s original fresh market. John is a prophet bridging the two testaments, but more importantly, he fulfills the OT role of the Messianic forerunner. According to the OT prophets, we’ll know the Messiah is coming when an Elijah like figure prepares the way by calling the people to repentance (Is. 40:3; Mal. 3:1; 4:5-6). All four Gospels highlight the ministry of John the Baptist because anyone familiar with the OT would have expected such a character to precede the Messiah. In older kingdoms one would expect heralds to enter a city before the King so the people could prepare and pay attention. The message of John is to repent, to turn from your ways and your idolatry, and make room for the King. The response is a corresponding baptism symbolizing such purification. The reason for such a declaration: the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Mt. 3:2). As we’ve seen, the OT expectations of a Messiah and King and the role of John the Baptist as heralding the arrival of this Christ make it clear that this kingdom of heaven is the arrival of God’s anointed Messiah and Son of David.

Jesus, the Christ, proclaims a message similar to John, only he points to himself as the one John had spoken of (Mt. 4:17). Jesus calls people out of their individual, tiny kingdom and invites them into the Kingdom of God—a Kingdom available to them only through submission to the King himself.[1] The birth, life, teachings, miracles, death, resurrection, and ascension are retold in such a way to demonstrate that Jesus is the promised Messiah, the Christ. Through the events themselves and how they’re narrated, the gospel writers are each describing in their own way “the story of how God became king of the world.”[2]

Two Misunderstandings on the Kingdom
Some dispensationalists have misunderstood Jesus’ message of the kingdom in the NT. They say that Jesus was offering a physical, political, national kingdom to Israel—since they say all OT prophecies to Israel must be fulfilled in a literal (i.e., physical) manner—but since he was rejected the kingdom of God has been postponed until he returns (for a millenial kingdom). Two of the problems with this view must be expressed to help us better grasp Jesus’ understanding of the kingdom. First, Jesus seems to understand kingdom from the outset in a different way than the Jews in his day (and present dispensationalists). Second, Jesus and the NT as a whole do not speak of the kingdom as wholly future—and certainly not postponed—but as inaugurated, present, and active. Let’s look at each in turn because these are key to understanding the kingdom of God.

1) What Kind of Kingdom Did Jesus Offer?
First, as been hinted at, the clash between the Jews and Jesus comes in part because they seem to have different understandings of the kingdom. The Jews could only accept a kingdom that was physical and earthly, where the Messianic king brought defeat to the worldly power of Rome and restored glory to Israel. Jesus does in fact see himself fulfilling the OT understanding of the Messianic King, but for him it appears different than many Jews anticipated. As I’ve said, this should not be surprising because the Jews in Jesus’ day missed the boat quite often when it came to interpreting the OT rightly. Jesus’ kingdom “answers to the great OT expectation. What Jesus announces is the realization of Israel’s hope, the fulfillment of the covenant promises made to the fathers; the new and final order at the end of history has arrived at last with Jesus.”[3] Yet, he describes it as coming in organic, hidden, and spiritual ways that were unexpected. This is not to say that Jesus never uses external metaphors to speak of the kingdom—and as we’ll see there is a future element to it—but he primarily understands it as a spiritual kingdom where God’s rule extends over the lives of His rescued people.

One example of this would be Jesus’ response to the religious leaders of his day. When the Pharisees asked when the kingdom would come, Jesus says “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:20-21). In the parables, Jesus repeatedly explains the kingdom of God in internal, spiritual, and organic terms not external, political ones. “Both the present reality and the organic-spiritual character of the kingdom are most clearly taught in the great kingdom parables (Matt. 13; Mark 4; Luke 8)”.[4]

There is a distinction here between the kingdom Jesus brought and the kingdom the Jews wanted. We also see this in the primary enemy of the kingdom in mind, not a national one but a spiritual one (Mt. 12:28; Lk. 11:20). “What forms the contrast of God’s kingdom in Jesus’ mind is never any political power, e.g., that of Rome, but always a superhuman power, viz., that of Satan.”[5] When Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world,” (Jn. 18:36), he doesn’t speak of this other-worldly kingdom as the Plan B or backup-kingdom but as the very nature of the kingdom he came to bring.

Beginning with the Gospels and throughout the NT, the kingdom of God is seen as having been inaugurated and now actively carrying on under the rule of Jesus Christ. No NT author speaks as if the current kingdom is anything other than the kingdom alluded to in the promises and prophecies of the OT. Christ has been exalted to the right hand of the Father and has poured out his Spirit upon the people as the power of the kingdom (Acts 2). This kingdom is the kingdom of the New Covenant and has brought the ‘age to come” and the “new creation” into the present day. When we consider the teachings of Jesus on the kingdom he has brought—not as an offer dependent on their acceptance but as a reality dependent on his Messianic victory—and the rest of the NT teaching that we’re now citizens in this kingdom, then we must conclude that the kingdom of God in Christ now looks different than many of the Jews expected (I Cor. 4:20; Col. 1:13). And, this should help formulate our theology so the kingdom we live in already and the kingdom not-yet in its consummate form are understood based upon its Christological fulfillment.

2) The Kingdom Has Come and Is Coming
The second misunderstanding of the kingdom in many people’s minds is that it’s wholly future and therefore postponed. This theory is usually dependent on the first mistake. If one cannot hear Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom because they’re only focused on an external, physical kingdom then they will have to say the kingdom is all in the future. The NT clearly teaches that the kingdom has come—in part—and so this view has become unpopular among most theologians today. Jesus does not settle for a second-class spiritual kingdom for Jews and Gentiles, waiting for the real kingdom to come in a physical manifestation only in Jerusalem.

The later section on Pentecost and the Kingdom will provide further support to the fact that the kingdom has come, but we’ll move forward by unpacking the already-not-yet idea of the kingdom. The NT teaches that with the resurrection-ascension of Jesus he has taken his place on the throne of David, which is to say that the New Covenant Kingdom is the Kingdom of God under the rule of Jesus. This kingdom is here in an inaugurated form, but equally important in the NT is the fact that there still remains a future, fully consummate aspect to the kingdom. Michael Horton writes, “As difficult as it is to hold both simultaneously, the New Testament eschatology indicates that the kingdom of Christ is present now but not yet in its consummated form.” [6]

One book or one NT author might stress more of what is present (realized) or what is still to come (unrealized), but the NT as a whole teaches an already-not-yet scheme where the kingdom has come and will come. Jesus has inaugurated (launched) it but will one day consummate (finish) it. “These present and future aspects cohere not as two or more kingdoms but as the one, eschatological kingdom arriving in successive stages or installments.”[7] One installment is primarily spiritual and hidden and one will be a physical kingdom over all of creation. The apostles preached the good news of the kingdom because they realized Jesus’ kingdom was what they had been waiting to arrive. It’s not the good news of a wholly future kingdom to come and it’s not the disappointed news that they had to settle for a spiritual kingdom because Jesus’ plan A got squelched. Instead, part of the confusion in the first century and still today is that we don’t listen to the kingdom Jesus describes. Instead, many bring their assumed expectations from the OT of a kingdom that can only be physical and so this framework obscures the NT teaching on the kingdom. We will see this more clearly in our next post by outlining the two stages of the kingdom’s coming.

I want to briefly mention two reasons why this matters. First, we must read the Bible as progressive revelation. This means that the Bible is like other stories in that as the narrative unfolds we have more details and clarity to help us look back. So, while the NT does not change the OT story and they should not be read in conflict, we should allow the NT to helps us interpret the OT. This is an overgeneralization of course, but one of the problems many covenant theologians have with dispensationalists is they often fail to allow the NT to give us clarity as to what the OT was pointing towards. The OT should inform our understanding of the NT but it shouldn’t strain seemingly clear NT teachings because of our need to see it fulfilled in physical ways (literal) exactly as stated. Second, the type of kingdom Jesus brings rebukes our constant seeking of glory. The kingdom of Jesus now is hidden and aims first at transforming hearts and bending wills to the authority of Jesus. The Jews wanted a kingdom that exalted them not want that called for them to serve others or remain under the rule of Rome. It’s in all of our hearts to want a kingdom right now of prestige, power, and glory among other people. The kingdom of Jesus is all about Jesus, so while we might share in his honor and victories through union with him we should not expect or want the world—who doesn’t recognize his kingdom—to sing our praises.

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