The Already Not-Yet Kingdom


[This is part 4 in a series on the kingdom of God.]

The Kingdom: Already-not-yet
Throughout Acts the followers of Jesus are the witnesses that Jesus is Messiah, crucified by men but raised up by God, who offers forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit (an OT sign the Messianic kingdom is active). Luke—the author of Acts—calls this message the gospel of the kingdom. It encompasses the current reign of Jesus who can deliver from the reign of sin and his future return on the day of the Lord when he will swallow up death forever. Both stages are part of Christ’s established kingdom that will never be halted and both are essential to its exercise. “The Kingdom of God is the redemptive reign of God dynamically active to establish his rule among human beings, and…this Kingdom, which will appear as an apocalyptic act at the end of the age, has already come into the blessings of God’s reign.”[1] As we outline the temporal pattern of the kingdom of God I will be relying heavily upon the work of Richard Gaffin. One might simply speak of the kingdom as present and future, but when speaking about Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God Gaffin breaks it down into three temporal patterns: its present in Jesus’ ministry, there’s an immediate future after his death, and there’s a distant future associated with the coming Day of the Lord.

First, Jesus talks about the kingdom as being present in some ways even prior to his death and resurrection-ascension. Likely, this is at least partly proleptic in that Jesus’ speaks with the end-result of his ministry in mind. “The disciples are blessed, just in distinction from those most prominent under the old covenant, because they have been granted and experiential knowledge of ‘the secrets of the kingdom’ as a present reality (Mt. 13:11, 16-17). The ‘least’ one presently in the kingdom is greater in this respect that John the Baptist (Mt. 11:11; cf. vv. 12-13).”[2] This reminds us that Jesus doesn’t talk about a future kingdom dependent on Israel accepting him. He declares with authority the kingdom has come near to them because the King is here, he is about to defeat Satan and take the throne of David through his death.

Second, Jesus does speak about the kingdom coming immediately in the future. This anticipates the inauguration of the kingdom at his resurrection-ascension and is what we are living in now. Although Jesus speaks of the kingdom during his ministry at times in anticipation of the victory he will achieve, other times he tells the disciples about the kingdom’s coming in power when he leaves them. When Jesus tells his disciples that some standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God (Luke 9:27; Mt. 10:23; 16:28; Mk 9:1), he was not saying that the “final day” will come before they see death but that the kingdom will come in power—in its inauguration.[3] There is an immediate future to the kingdom (Mt. 4:17; Mk. 1:15) that is “best understood as arriving in the death and exaltation of Jesus (including Pentecost).”[4] Whereas this climactic coming of the kingdom when Jesus is exalted to the throne of David at the right hand of God (Rom. 1:4; Acts 2:33) is spoken of as future by Jesus, it is the “already” part of the kingdom we’re living in now.

Third, Jesus speaks of a coming in the distant future, which for us today occupies the “not-yet” stage of the kingdom. “Faithful Jews and Gentiles will gather for the great kingdom-banquet at the same time that unbelieving Jews (as well as other unbelievers) are excluded, that is, at the time of final judgment (Mt. 8:11, 12).”[5] This view isn’t dependent on a particular view of the millennium, since whether pre-, post-, and amillenial views hold to a remaining consummation. “The challenge for us in this age is to avoid both underrealized and overrealized eschatologies of the kingdom.”[6] In other words, Christians in this present age are participating here and now in the age to come. We are those in the kingdom of God—Christ’s kingdom—and so we should see ourselves as living with him and under his rule. And yet, at the same time we should live in light of his return when the kingdom will be consummated in both a spiritual and a physical form.

The kingdom isn’t something wholly in the future but something we are living in now as those who by Jesus’ blood have been transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of the beloved Son (Col. 1:13). “The Kingdom of God involves two great moments: fulfillment within history, and consummation at the end of history.”[7] Living in light of the kingdom means both “great moments” are always in view. The Kingdom of God brings great weight and meaning to the present since we’ve received the privileges and the power of God’s kingdom, but it also reminds us that there is a kingdom to come when all evil, pain, and sin will finally be eradicated as we will dwell with God forever. N.T. Wright is worth quoting at length to close out this section.

“What I miss, right across the Western tradition, at least the way it has come through to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, is the devastating and challenging message I find in the four gospels: God really has become king—in and through Jesus! A new state of affairs has been brought into existence. A door has been opened that nobody can shut. Jesus is now the world’s rightful Lord, and all other lords are to fall at his feet. This is an eschatological message, not in trivial sense that it heralds the ‘end of the world’ (whatever that might mean), but in the sense that it is about something that was supposed to happen when Israel’s hopes were fulfilled; and Israel’s hopes were not for the demise of the space-time universe, but for the earth to be full of God’s glory It is, however, an inaugurated eschatological message, claiming that this ‘something’ has indeed happened in and through Jesus and does not yet look like what people might have imagined. That is the story the gospels are telling.” [8]

[1] George Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 89-90.
[2] Richard B. Gaffin, “Kingdom of God,” in New Dictionary of Theology, ed. by Sinclair B. Ferguson, David F. Wright, and J.I. Packer (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 368.
[3] Another possible interpretation is that its fulfillment is in the very next scene, the transfiguration, when Peter, James, and John experience the glory of Jesus in a profound way. However, even if this interpretation is taken, many commentators see the Transfiguration as a preview of Christ’s resurrection-ascension glory that will be demonstrated at Pentecost.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Horton, The Christian Faith, 543.
[7] George Ladd, The Presence of the Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 218.
[8] Wright, How God Became King, 38.

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