“Contemporary people have difficulty with authority”—Stephen Um opens his concise explanation of the Bible’s teaching on the kingdom of God with these words. This new booklet from the Gospel Coalition is particularly timely in view of the postmodern rejection of authority.
Um explores how the Bible uses the term “kingdom of God” and discusses its relevance and meaning for today. He offers a brief biblical theology of God’s kingship as found in the Bible. Christian identity and community are ultimately tied to the kingdom of God, and Um details the implications the kingdom has for Christians. This booklet is a helpful overview of a central theological theme of the Bible.
The Kingdom of God offers a thoughtful explanation for point 10 of the Gospel Coalition’s Confessional Statement. The coalition is an evangelical renewal movement dedicated to a Scripture-based reformation of ministry practices.
About the Author
Stephen Um (PhD, University of St. Andrews) serves as the senior minister of Citylife Church in Boston, Massachusetts. He also serves as a council member for the Gospel Coalition. Stephen lives in Boston, Massachusetts, with his wife, Kathleen, and their three daughters.
D. A. Carson (PhD, Cambridge University) is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he has taught since 1978. He is a cofounder of the Gospel Coalition and has written or edited nearly 120 books. He and his wife, Joy, have two children and live in the north suburbs of Chicago.
Timothy J. Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. He is the best-selling author of The Prodigal God and The Reason for God.
Read an Excerpt
Contemporary people have difficulty with authority. The self-proclaimed libertine denies any ruling structure — except for his own intrinsic self-authority — since he believes that no authoritative power has the ability to emancipate. External authority is seen as intrinsically oppressive. Grant that conclusion, and it is easy to nurture the illusion that we humans do not need any external authority. A scene in Monty Python's The Holy Grail illustrates well this anti-authority sentiment while satirically suggesting that certain forms of lordship can be suppressive and coercive.
KING ARTHUR: Old woman.
KING ARTHUR: Man, sorry. What knight lives in that castle over there?
DENNIS: I'm 37.
KING ARTHUR: What?
DENNIS: I'm 37. I'm not old.
KING ARTHUR: Well I can't just call you "man."
DENNIS: Well, you could say "Dennis."
KING ARTHUR: I didn't know you were called Dennis.
DENNIS: Well, you didn't bother to find out, did you?
KING ARTHUR: I did say sorry about the "old woman," but from behind you looked ...
DENNIS: What I object to is you automatically treat me like an inferior.
KING ARTHUR: Well, I am king.
DENNIS: Oh, king, eh? Very nice. And how'd you get that, eh? By exploiting the workers. By hanging on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society ...
KING ARTHUR: I am your king.
WOMAN: I didn't know we had a king. I thought we were an autonomous collective ...
KING ARTHUR: I am your king.
WOMAN: Well, I didn't vote for you.
KING ARTHUR: You don't vote for kings.
WOMAN: Well, how'd you become king then?
[Angelic music plays]
KING ARTHUR: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. THAT is why I am your king.
DENNIS: [interrupting] Listen, strange women lyin' in ponds distributin' swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.
This culturally dominant interpretation of self-determination is supported by postmodernist thinkers like Don Cupitt, who declares, "The age of authority of grand institutions, of legitimating myths, and capital T-Truth, is over." Cupitt makes his declaration with bold authority — and that of course makes his declaration ironic, even self-negating. This is the irony and the paradox of choice. Modern individuals believe that the multiplicity of options is liberating, but it is actually debilitating and ultimately demotivating and tyrannizing. According to Richard Bauckham:
God therefore is undoubtedly implicated in the contemporary crisis of freedom. ... Belief in God ... seems to many incompatible with human autonomy. ... All too often in church history God has been misrepresented as suppressing rather than promoting freedom. He has been the heavenly despot who is the model and sanction for oppressive regimes on earth. It is clear that this is not the biblical God. His lordship liberates from all human lordship. This is because the divine Master himself fulfills his lordship not in domination but in the service of a slave (Phil. 2:6–11).
What then of authority and kingship in the Christian faith? Postmodernism empowers the individual's intrinsic authority and casts it over against the extrinsic authoritarian claims of Enlightenment rationality or premodern religious authority. By contrast, the Bible's message promotes not self-mastery but the authority of grace. Authority belongs in the first place to God and his gracious self-donation to us. In other words, the increase of intimacy enjoyed by individuals in a relationship will inevitably, naturally, and simultaneously decrease their level of independence.
The Bible introduces the undisputed reality of the authority of God, his Word, and of truth revealed by him. Therefore, the theme of the kingship of God is one of the central and key motifs in all of Scripture. This booklet examines a theology, an identity, and a community shaped by this kingdom.
A Theology Shaped by the Kingdom
The concept of the kingdom of God is an important teaching found in all of Scripture. The Bible also calls it the "kingdom of heaven," the "kingdom of Christ," the "kingdom of the Lord," and the "kingdom." Since the Bible is one book, many commentators have attempted to find one unifying biblical theme that holds the two Testaments together. There are obviously many complementary biblical themes of great importance, but a good case can be made for the view that "the bond that binds [the Testaments] together is the dynamic concept of the rule of God."
It is curious to notice in the landscape of biblical interpretation that there have been numerous explanations for the biblical term kingdom. Some have reduced the kingdom of God to the present subjective realm and inward power of the Spirit at work in the human heart, while others have either defined the idea to a new, future, heavenly, spiritual order or equated the kingdom with the visible church.
Still others have taken a reductionistic approach in understanding the kingdom as an ideal social program for human civilization without referring to individual redemption. Therefore, according to this approach, "building" the kingdom means restoring all social problems such as poverty, social injustice, and various forms of inequalities.
There has been a diversity of interpretations throughout history because the biblical teaching embraces disparate emphases: the kingdom as both a present reality (Matt. 12:28; 21:31; Mark 10:15) and a future blessing (1 Cor. 15:50; Matt. 8:11; Luke 12:32), both a spiritual and saving blessing of new life (Rom. 14:17; John 3:3) and an expanded future rule of society (Rev. 11:15).
The key to resolving the different emphases is figuring out what the Bible means by the word kingdom. What is the kingdom of God? Most modern dictionaries will define the word as a "sphere," "realm," or "place." This explanation has misguided interpreters away from the biblical understanding that emphasizes the rank, rule, reign, dominion, and royal authority of God.
Jesus' parable in Luke 19 makes clear the fundamental meaning of the kingdom of God. The story describes a nobleman who "went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return" (Luke 19:12). This man did not visit another country in order to secure for himself a realm over which to exercise his rule; rather, he left his own place and went elsewhere to obtain the authority, the kingship, the right to rule the territory to which he returns (Luke 19:15; indeed, the RSV has "kingly power"). (It is possible Jesus is thinking of Herod, who went away to Rome to secure Caesar's blessing so that he might return to Judea and reign as King Herod.)
The kingdom of God is fundamentally God's sovereign rule expressed and realized through the different stages of redemptive history. This biblical doctrine derives from the truth that God, as the one true, living, and eternal Ruler, always existed and therefore reigns over his creation. "The kingdom of God, already present but not fully realized, is the exercise of God's sovereignty in the world toward the eventual redemption of all creation."
God's Rule in Creation
When discussing the theology of kingship, many have inadequately emphasized God's cosmic rule as the creator of the world (Pss. 24:1; 93:1; 95:3–7; 47:1–9; 83:18; 103:19; 113:5; Dan. 4:25–26; 5:21; Matt. 5:34; Eph. 1:20; Col. 1:16; Heb. 12:2; Rev. 7:15). There is a clear connection between Yahweh's kingly reign and the history of the Israelite monarchy (1 Samuel 8), but God's royal rule began with his sovereign administration and preservation of the cosmic order he had created. Goldsworthy states:
God's own sovereign rule was epitomized in the probationary world which set the bounds of human freedom within the kingdom (Gen. 2:15–17). The blessedness of kingdom existence consisted in both the relationship of man to God and the relationship of man to creation. Nature was submissive to man's dominion and fruitful in providing his needs.
The royal administration of God the Maker-Lord was mediated through the "assignment of dominion to man over the world under conditions of Edenic beatitude (Gen 1:28) [which] can be seen as signalizing a covenantal relationship between God and man."
The theme of the kingdom of God is well attested throughout the changing historical periods that Scripture portrays. The concept of God as king was basic to a nomadic people who viewed their God as the sovereign ruling king. He accompanied their travels and provided protection and shelter while developing a line of descendants who would be chosen to be his special people.
The focus of this description of God's reign is primarily on the children of Abraham and the land of Israel. Genesis 4–11 describes the line of Abraham to whom the significant covenantal promises were given concerning a great nation, a great land, and a covenantal rule and relationship (Gen. 12:1–3). Some have interpreted the threefold promise as highlighting the biblical description of the kingdom of God, namely, God's people, God's realm, and God's rule.
God's Rule in the Exodus
At the time of the exodus from Egypt, God established his reign over Israel's history through a series of divine interventions and mighty acts of salvation (e.g., see Exodus 15; Deut. 6:20–24; 26:5–10; Josh. 24:5–13; Psalms 78; 105; 106; 114; 135; 136; Neh. 9:9–15), the deliverance of the people who were in bondage, the distribution of the miracles of the plagues and the parting of the sea, the preservation of the Israelites in the wilderness, along with theophanic experiences. The people recognized that Yahweh's sovereignty was constituted by his successive acts of salvation, "forming a Godcontrolled continuity, a history, and that this history was moving forward to a future according to God's will." God asserted his ruling activity when he delivered his people from the hands of Pharaoh and brought them into the Promised Land (Exodus 15; 19:5–6).
God's Rule in the Period of the Monarchy and the Prophets
The history of salvation during the period of the monarchy is full of tragedies. Israel was called and set apart to be a blessing to the world and to be God's vice-regents to oversee the land (1 Chron. 29:23; 2 Chronicles 6), but sadly its history was marked more by infidelity than faithfulness, idolatry than worship, and rebellion than obedience. The heavenly host has always worshiped and continues to praise God's holiness with "unqualified voluntary service," but humans have refused to honor God as king, which explains the rising of earthly kingdoms filled with evil opposition to God. Therefore, the prophetic books introduce a message of hope that will be ushered in by the Messiah, who "will judge the wicked and bring redeemed humanity into a new creation (Ezekiel 36; 47; Isaiah 35; 55; 65; Zechariah 14)."
This will be the stage in redemptive history, a great and glorious day in the future when all things will be restored, when God's universal rule will break in (Isa. 26:1–15; 28:5–6; 33:5–24, 17–22; 44:5; Ezek. 11:17–21; 20:33–38; Hos. 2:16–17; Zech. 8:1–8), along with the righteousness of the kingdom (Isa. 11:3–5; Jer. 23:5–6), and everlasting peace and harmony (Isa. 2:2–3; 9:5–6; 11:6–7; 35:9; Mic. 5:4; Zech. 9:9–10).
God's Messianic Rule in the New Testament
In the New Testament, both Jesus and John the Baptist announce that the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matt. 3:2; 4:17; Mark 1:15), the final stage of the kingdom on earth being realized by the incarnation and ongoing ministry of Christ (Matt. 2:2; 4:23; 9:35; 27:11; Mark 15:2; Luke 16:16; 23:3; John 18:37). Although this earthly ministry is already present, the consummate and complete fulfillment will not yet be realized until the return of Christ in glory (1 Cor. 15:50–58; Rev. 11:5).
This central mission of ushering in the final stage of the kingdom is presented to allow a broken and fallen humanity to enter into the kingdom of God (Matt. 5:20; 7:21; John 3:3). The realized kingdom, God's powerful rule, was entering "historical life in a new way, for here was the King himself coming 'to announce the decisive redeeming act of God, and to perform it.'" Even his parables are used as a teaching vehicle to illustrate to his followers the truths of his kingdom (Matt. 13:11). Although the benefits and privileges of the gospel are already present in part (Eph. 1:3), the future blessedness of glory is promised to those for whom it was prepared (Matt. 25:31, 34).
Throughout the Old Testament there are numerous inter-canonical themes where the plots of stories thicken with dramatic tension and seemingly irreconcilable resolutions. Only in the person of Christ can the tensions be resolved and the expectations of a perfectly righteous, peaceful, salvation-supplying rule be completely fulfilled. Ever since the garden, humanity through its fall lost the freedom to enjoy the glories of God's rule; therefore, the drama of human history would be forever engaged in an insatiable pursuit of finding the perfect true king.
The tragedy of biblical history, especially during the period of the monarchy, is a picture of the people's failed attempt to learn how to submit to the rule of God. Instead of surrendering their self-creation, self-promotion, and self-salvation to monolatry, Israelite history shows the enslavement of the human heart to idolatry. All of the corporate representatives of God's people — from Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and David to all of the other great redemptive figures — failed to resolve the tension in the salvation storyline in providing healing and liberation from slavery and bondage. The resolution provided by God was unexpected: God himself through the incarnation visited a fallen humanity, and the renewal of all things broken took place through the work of a suffering Messiah. With magnificent irony, God identified himself with the godforsaken.
This paradoxical picture of God's willingness to identify in his death with godforsaken people is linked to the suffering servant in Isaiah 52:13–53:12, this servant who bore the sins of many and suffered in a substitutionary way.
It was in this context of the necessary link between the uniqueness of God and his [final] acts for the salvation of Israel and the world that the early Christians read of the enigmatic figure of the Servant of the Lord, who witnesses to God's unique deity and who, in chapters 52–53, both suffers humiliation and death and also is exalted and lifted up.
The unfolding hope of redemption for human rebellion and renewal for a broken creation finds its expression and fulfillment in Jesus Christ come in the flesh. The kingdom now has its objective reality realized in the historical arrival and activity of the messianic king. The biblical description of the kingdom highlighting God's people, his place, and his power has its complete final resolution in Jesus, who is God's true people, presence, and authority.
Fulfillment of God's People
Luke describes Adam as the son of God (Luke 3:38) while Exodus 4:22 refers to Israel, the people of God, as God's firstborn son. The sonship motif was fulfilled in Jesus, who as the perfect second-Adam, the "beloved Son" (Luke 3:22 ESV), and true Israel accomplished what both the first Adam and Israel failed to do, namely, submitting to the cosmic King. "Thus the temptation narratives show the reversal of Satan's conquest of Adam in the garden and of Israel in the wilderness," and therefore, "all the prophecies concerning the restoration of Israel [as] the people of God must [find] their fulfillment in Him."
Fulfillment of God's Presence
The "tabernacle imagery is able to ... portray the person of Jesus as the locus of God's Word and glory among humankind." What was impossible for Moses, seeing the radiant glory of God (Ex. 33:20), has become possible for those who believe (John 1:14) since the Word incarnate has seen God (John 1:18; 3:11).
Therefore, the description of Jesus' symbolizing the ultimate manifestation of the dwelling place of God appropriately introduces the temple motif in the Gospel of John. He is the "eternal cosmic-human Temple of God" who tabernacled among his people "by its totally different form of proximity," which symbolizes the ushering in of the final presence of God's temple in the messianic age. In this "temple," the body of Christ (John 2:19–22), the ultimate sacrifice would be made; yet Jesus says that after three days the true, spiritual temple will be raised from the dead to replace the Jerusalem temple.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Kingdom of God"
Copyright © 2011 The Gospel Coalition.
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Table of Contents
A Theology Shaped by the Kingdom, 9,
The Christian's Identity Shaped by the Kingdom, 16,
Community Shaped by the Kingdom, 20,