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Chapter 6 in About God
The Psalmist wrote:
The LORD sitteth upon the flood; yea, the LORD sitteth King for ever.
Psalm 29:10 (KJV)
Yahweh has established his throne in the heavens. His kingdom rules over all.
Psalm 103:19 (WEB)
These verses state in a simple way the attribute of God which theologians call his "sovereignty." God is King, enthroned "over," not "in" or "among," the affairs of his creation. Moreover, these scriptures and others make it clear that God is the only true King of all things (1). However, it should not be concluded from this that our God is, like a Greek god, in all points similar to a human king only immortal and ten thousand times more powerful. No such speculation is necessary because the scriptures say a great deal about what God's kingdom consists of and how it operates.
God's kingdom is where God is king. Thus, it is stated that it will not be time for Jesus to hand over the kingdom to his Father until he has put all his enemies under his feet. I Corinthians 15:22-25. This implies that there are enemies who do not acknowledge God as King. These enemies of God as King are also mentioned in several of Jesus' parables, in which they are always excluded from the benefits of the kingdom (2). Stated positively, only those who do the Father's will enter the kingdom of God. Matthew 7:21. Further, the kingdom demands to be in first place in its subjects' lives, ahead of all of their personal needs and interests, and God cares for the needs of those who put him first (3). Yet it is not outward religiosity or public profession that one is doing God's will which places one in the kingdom, but actually putting God's will first. After the religious leaders of the Jews questioned his authority, Jesus made the following comparison:
"But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first, and said, 'Son, go work today in my vineyard.' He answered, 'I will not,' but afterward he changed his mind, and went. He came to the second, and said the same thing. He answered, 'I go, sir,' but he didn't go. Which of the two did the will of his father?" They said to him, "The first." Jesus said to them, "Most certainly I tell you that the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering into the Kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you didn't believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. When you saw it, you didn't even repent afterward, that you might believe him."
Matthew 21:28-32 (WEB)
It would be natural to assume that the religious leaders to whom Jesus was speaking, who professed loudly their devotion to God and were scrupulous about keeping the details of the Law, would be subjects of the kingdom. But, as Jesus pointed out, these men kept their lives for themselves -- though they professed obedience, they failed to do God's work when called to it. On the other hand, the kingdom took as subjects tax collectors and prostitutes who, quite obviously, had at first refused to obey God but later repented and gave him their lives when John the Baptist preached repentance to them. See, also, Luke 7:29-30. These truly became subject to the King. For the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power. I Corinthians. 4:20 (KJV).
God's kingdom is eternal and unchanging, but appears to us to vary in extent and authority because we are trapped in time. God's kingdom is eternal, as God himself is eternal. Jeremiah 10:10; Daniel 4:34. God's kingdom is eternal in the past. God has the right to be King over his creation because he created it. Psalm 95:3-5. Therefore, God's kingdom is established "from of old" and exists "from all eternity." Psalm 74:12; Psalm 93:1-2. He has prepared his Kingdom for his people since the creation of the world. Matthew 25:34 (4). God's kingdom is also eternal in the present sense of being above time, just as its King is. It "endures throughout all generations" and "from generation to generation.(5)" Further, Psalm 29:10, quoted above, states that God is enthroned as King forever, and other scriptures confirm that God's kingdom is eternal in the future and will never end (6). While all other kingdoms will someday be destroyed, God's kingdom cannot be shaken, and will never be destroyed. Daniel 2:20-21; Hebrews 12:28-29.
However, in this world and in time as we see it, God's kingdom appears to vary, passing through five distinct periods in which its operation differs from the preceding period. The first period ran from before the creation until the creation of man. During this period, God's rule was complete, unshared and undivided in every sense (7). The second brief period began when God created man, male and female, in his own image and gave them rule over the earth, retaining rule over the heavens to himself. Genesis 1:26-30; Psalm 115:2-4, 15-16. During this period God's rule of earth was still complete and undivided, but was shared.
When Adam sinned, the third period began. Adam's sin created hostility and division between God and the man he had created to rule the Earth and a visible division in the kingdom. God had given rule of the earth to man, and man had rebelled to follow God's enemy into darkness, as explained in an earlier chapter. Man now feared God's light (8). God's rule of earth was now no longer shared, but was incomplete and divided with men who opposed him, at least as seen from an earthly human perspective.
Yet God did not take the prerogative to rule the earth away from man: the earth is still given to man. Psalm 115:16. Instead, God began to make demonstrations to people of his love and of the nature of his kingdom -- i.e., those in whom God rules. During the third period, God demonstrated his kingdom not to all men, but to specific individuals and to his chosen nation Israel, as they were ready (9). The most noteworthy example of this is the code of laws God gave to Moses. As discussed in an earlier chapter, God gave his Law to Israel after their fear had led them collectively to ask that he not speak to them directly. He gave the Law so that Israelites who kept it might maintain some favored relationship with him without having any direct contact which would trigger their fear. However, the New Testament makes it very clear that the Law was not given to help people make themselves acceptable to God. Galatians 3:10-12 & 21-22. Rather, it was given as a schoolmaster to teach men that they could not make themselves acceptable to God, but could only become acceptable to God by faith. Galatians 3:22-25. Thus, the Law pointed to the true nature of God's kingdom -- in which God himself is King, and God rather than a set of rules governs his subjects. Compare, Exodus 19:3-6.
During this third period, men were free to disobey God, his will was not always immediately done (as we see time) and his sovereignty appeared incomplete. In reality, God maintained control, primarily by working through a few chosen gentiles and His people Israel. On the individual level, God offered his own people a choice between obedience leading to life and blessing or disobedience leading to death and cursing. Deuteronomy 30:15-20. However, throughout this period, with the exception of a few brief periods of revival, most Israelites chose to disbelieve the true God and to die following other gods or their own lusts (10). With only a few notable exceptions (11) which are all connected to the history of Israel in some way, during this third period God paid little attention to individual gentiles, permitting the gentiles to go on their own way and overlooking their collective ignorance. Acts 17:30. Nevertheless, God did maintain during this period overall control over gentile history, setting up and pulling down kingdoms, determining beforehand the exact times and places of their habitation and setting up over them as kings the basest of men as he chose (12). Each king God chose for a gentile nation had the same freedom as any other human being to choose his own way and to have the consequences of his own choices (13). See, e.g., Daniel 4. But God ruled over the consequences of these gentile kings' decisions to give his people ultimate deliverance and victory (14).
The third period ended and the fourth period began when the King himself was born on earth as a human. Luke 1:30-33. When the King came to earth as a man, the kingdom followed him wherever he went, and the enemies of the kingdom could not stand in his presence. Though they killed him, even death could not stand before him.
Jesus' message was frequently "repent, for the kingdom is near" or "has come nigh unto you," a plain statement that he came to bring the kingdom to earth.(14) During this fourth period, the earthly portion of the kingdom (15) consisted of Jesus and of those who obeyed his call to follow him, those who sought, heard and believed his words (16). In this period, the kingdom was made visible on earth primarily through Jesus and a few chosen disciples (17). It was made visible through the preaching of the good news of the kingdom and the disappearance of the consequences of sin, which are contrary to the King and his kingdom, wherever the King and his disciples went. Thus, sickness and demonic oppression, as consequences of sin, were unwelcome in Jesus' presence, and healing and casting out of demons followed Jesus' band everywhere they went (18). Similarly, scarcity could not stand in the presence of the King who gives us richly all things to enjoy (19). Even the forces of sin-corrupted nature which opposed Jesus were subject to him (20). During this period the Lord also gave his chosen disciples the keys to the kingdom, and near the end of this period he breathed on them and told them to receive the Holy Spirit and sent them out as the Father had sent him (21). This period characterized by the King's physical presence on earth lasted from the birth of Jesus until his death and from the day of his resurrection until the day he ascended to heaven. During the three days between Jesus' death and his resurrection, darkness reigned. Luke 22:53.
After King Jesus physically left the earth, he sent the Holy Spirit in order that he could live within everyone who believes. The kingdom now follows each believer wherever he goes.
The present period of the growth of the kingdom began with Jesus' ascension into heaven. After this day the King was no longer present on earth in a physical body (22). However, before his death Jesus had promised his disciples that the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, would come, live in them, guide them into all truth, and show them Jesus (who promised to come to them through his Spirit) (23). Shortly after Jesus ascended into heaven, the Holy Spirit came as Jesus had promised. However, the Spirit came at first not just on the inner circle of 11 disciples, but on 120 disciples -- and by the end of that day on 3,000 more (24). While Jesus was on earth, the kingdom was present in a single body -- that of the king. Now that the king had physically left the earth, the kingdom was present in thousands of bodies -- all of the king's subjects who now acted with the full authority of the king. John 15:7-8 & 16:21-24. However, these thousands of bodies were in another sense only a single body: Jesus had prayed that his disciples and those who would believe through their message would be set apart and made one with himself, the Father and each other in perfect unity. John 17:13-24. Thus, all those who believe are the body of Christ on earth, which is spiritually a single unified body (25). Outwardly, we are fellow citizens of God's kingdom, but we retain our own free wills, and therefore must be exhorted to maintain the unity of the body in the spirit, which spiritually is an immutable fact but in its manifestation to the world is quite fragile (26).
The growth of the kingdom has both visible and invisible aspects. The visible aspect is the growth of the visible Church; the invisible, spiritual aspect is the growth of the kingdom within God's people and in the number of people who recognize the King.
In the present time and since Adam, the kingdom of God has been growing. Indeed, people are forcing their way into the kingdom. Matthew 11:12; Luke 16:16. Everyone who enters the kingdom must force his way since the world and the person's flesh will resist his entry. That the growth of the kingdom in our lives is resisted is illustrated by the parable of the sower as told in Matthew 13:3-8 and explained in verses 18-23. The seed is the good news of the kingdom -- that is, the good news Jesus had been preaching: the kingdom is near to you, at hand, you can be a part of it. The good news of the kingdom grows in the hearts of men. But some people's hearts are hardened and cannot hear or retain this good news at all. Other peoples' hearts are shallow and, though they receive the good news and are thrilled that the kingdom is offered to them, they reject the word and it dies in their hearts when they encounter the world's opposition. Still others allow the word to grow, but it is choked out by the cares of the world (which the king promises to take care of for us, Matthew 6:33) and, though the word survives, it is not allowed to produce any fruit. It is only the last type of person who received the seed into good soil and permitted it to produce. Thus, the kingdom grows when the word which invites people into it is heard, grows in hearts and produces more of its own kind. A similar truth is illustrated by the parable in Mark 4:26-29, where the kingdom is said to be like a man who scatters seed on the ground (27). Once the seed is scattered, the soil -- still the hearts of men -- produces on its own, the kingdom growing in hearts that receive it without any effort on the sower's part to make it grow. The seed contains the plant that mysteriously grows while the man goes about his other business. Once he has planted a seed, he only returns to the resulting plant when the harvest is ready.
The growth of the kingdom also has aspects that are visible to the world and aspects that are invisible to the world. In Matthew 13:31-32, the kingdom is compared to a mustard seed which a man planted in his field. The seed, here a picture of the kingdom itself, grows into a tree large enough that the birds perch in its branches. What the world sees of the kingdom -- the visible church -- has, indeed, grown into a large organism with many branches which are, unfortunately, often hostile to each other. Further, just as Jesus said, the birds of the evil one which snatch the seed out of people's hearts (compare Matthew 13:4 & 19) do perch in the branches of the visible church. The invisible aspect of the kingdom's growth is illustrated in Matthew 13:33, where the kingdom is compared to yeast. A woman hid this yeast in a large amount of flour until it had spread throughout the dough. Similarly, the kingdom is invisibly growing and spreading throughout the world, changing the world as it grows. Just as it is the change in the dough that is seen rather than the yeast, so it is the change in the world that is seen by the world rather than the secret spread of the kingdom in individuals' hearts.
Thus, the operation of God's kingdom cannot be understood by people who are outside of it. Jesus gave the secret of the kingdom of God to his disciples, but spoke to those outside his kingdom only in parables, so that seeing they might not see and hearing they might not understand. Mark 4:11-12; Luke 8:11. He gave the keys to the kingdom to his disciples. Matthew 16:16-19. These keys were subsequently used to open the kingdom to believing Jews, Samaritans and gentiles. (28). But the kingdom was never opened to unbelievers, because this would have been a futile act. No one can either see or enter the kingdom of God who has not been born again of the Spirit. John 3:3-6. The kingdom is spiritual, and can only be seen by those who have heard and received spiritual words, who have allowed the word of the kingdom to grow. See John 6:63.
The kingdom of God and the power of evil are growing simultaneously in the present world. In Matthew 13:24-30 and 37-43 the kingdom is compared to a man who sowed good seed in a field. Since the kingdom is here compared to the man, not the seed or the field, it is evident that this parable is told from the man's -- i.e., the Son of Man's, the King's -- perspective. As the King sees it, he sowed good seed in his field and an enemy later sowed weed seed there. However, because the wheat and the weeds sown are difficult to distinguish until they produce fruit, the king ordered that the wheat and the weeds be allowed to grow up together until harvest. Likewise, as Jesus explained, the present world contains both children of God and children of the devil, which outwardly look similar enough that even the angels (the harvesters) have difficulty distinguishing them from each other. Therefore, to avoid uprooting any of his children through premature judgment, God is allowing both his children and the devil's children to grow up together until they have all produced fruit (by their fruit you will know them), at which time he will call for the harvest which will separate them. Thus, in the present time, both good and evil are growing together -- the growth of each not necessarily diminishing the other -- until the harvest.
The final period of the kingdom, as we see time, is the harvest, the time of judgment which leads out of time into eternity. Jesus taught his disciples to pray that God's kingdom would come on earth as it already is in heaven, implying that the kingdom is not complete here yet. Luke 11:2. Similarly, Paul expressed his confidence that God would deliver him from every evil attack and bring him safely to his heavenly kingdom. 2 Timothy 4:18. Likewise, John recognized that, because of persecution on account of the word, suffering and patient endurance accompany the kingdom in the present world. Revelation 1:9. But at a time still future to us, God's kingdom will crush and replace all the kingdoms of this earth. Daniel 2:35, 44-45; Revelation 11:15. At this time, God will judge the secrets of men through Jesus Christ by the gospel. Romans 2:16. Then,
But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then those who are Christ's, at his coming. Then the end comes, when he will deliver up the Kingdom to God, even the Father; when he will have abolished all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.
I Corinthians 15:23-25 (WEB)
Although God's kingdom appears to have several distinct periods as we see time, it is only one kingdom, as God is one. The kingdom is always referred to in the singular, as it is in the passage quoted above. Thus, Nebuchadnezzar saw one rock cut out without hands which crushed the feet of the statue, and Daniel identified this rock as a symbol as "a kingdom" which God will set up to crush all others and endure forever. Daniel 2:35, 44-45. Similarly, Jesus conferred upon his disciples "a kingdom, just as his Father conferred one on him." Luke 22:29. Jesus also compared the kingdom to one pearl, one net containing many fish, one banquet with many guests, one king, one vineyard, one mustard seed and one mustard plant with many branches (29). The kingdom is, like God, an undivided whole. A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. Matthew 12:25. God's kingdom will stand forever, it cannot be shaken, and therefore cannot be divided. See, Hebrews 12:28. This does not imply, however, that the people who comprise the kingdom in the present time will always be in outward unity with each other. No, because the kingdom in its current form is composed of humans who are still drawn to go their own way, there have been outward divisions among God's people from a time not long after Pentecost (30). But the inward reality of the kingdom even now is that we are united in a single Spirit (31), and God commands us to work to preserve our outward unity as well in the bond of peace. Ephesians 4:3-6. It is when our outward unity in the Church is a true picture of our inward unity in the kingdom that the world can see the love of the King. John 17:20-23.
The outward kingdom in this world is only a picture of the spiritual kingdom within God's people because the real kingdom is spiritual, just as God and all other ultimate realities are spiritual. Jesus stated clearly that people would not see the kingdom by watching for its coming in the world because it is within or among us. Luke 17:20-21. God presently calls us into his kingdom and glory, which is a present reality for us. I Thessalonians 2:11-12; Revelation 1:9. The writer to the Hebrews then explains that the kingdom is not composed of physical, created things, because, if it were, it could be "shaken" -- i.e., removed by God's judgment -- but the kingdom we are receiving "cannot be shaken." Hebrews 12:25-29.
Because God's kingdom is spiritual, many of its principles are contrary to those of worldly kingdoms. For instance, Jesus told Pilate that his kingdom was not from this world, but from another place, and that, as king, he came to testify to the truth -- showing that his kingdom has much to do with truth and little to do with territory and political power. John 18:36-37. Similarly, one attempting to overthrow a kingdom in this world usually will not announce his intentions publicly until the coup is successful, but God's kingdom is first proclaimed, then comes where it has been proclaimed (32). Earthly kingdoms belong to the self-reliant, who boldly seize them for themselves. God's kingdom belongs to the poor in spirit. Matthew 5:3. Earthly kings are wealthy, powerful men. God's kingdom is given to those who know they are poor and weak. James 2:5. Indeed, the kingdom belongs to those who become like little children, totally dependent. (33) What is important to earthly kings is their subjects' outward acts of service and outward obedience to their laws. To God, it is his inward rule which matters rather than outward compliance alone. Matthew 5:17-48 (34). In the world, victory comes from strength and kingdoms are made through works of strength. God's kingdom is entered by doing his will, and in it victories come from God himself as we are weak (35). In the world, needs are met by putting oneself first and increase is obtained by keeping what one has and seizing more. In God's kingdom, increase is obtained by putting the kingdom first, giving up all one has and letting God provide (36). In this world, the way to become powerful is to first serve the wealthy and powerful, to become a trusted part of their organizations. The kingdom of heaven is given to those who serve the poor, the sick and the prisoner. Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 12:31-34. In this world, the way up is up: the way to advancement is over other peoples' heads, making them servants. In the kingdom of God, the way up is down, becoming the servant of all. Matthew 20:20-28; Luke 12:24-30.
Because God is light, his kingdom is the kingdom of light. Colossians 1:12. He has delivered all who enter his kingdom from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of the son he loves, the kingdom of light. Colossians 1:12-13. God, the blessed and only ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, dwells in unapproachable light, and a scepter of justice is the scepter of his kingdom. Psalm 45:6; I Timothy 6:14-16. Righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. Psalm 96:10, 97:1-2. Even now, justice characterizes God's kingdom, although, as explained in a previous chapter, he has committed judgment to his Son and deferred final judgment until the end, as we see time.
Finally, because God is love, love is the key that opens his kingdom. The Pharisees' approach to the law reversed this, stressing observance of the law's details -- and of additional details the rabbis added to the law to be sure they would not transgress it -- to the exclusion of mercy and compassion. But they did not understand that the important things are within, where God desires mercy, not sacrifice(37). Thus, the Pharisee who understood that love is more important than the law was, indeed, "not far from the kingdom of God." Mark 12:32-34.
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© 1998, 2005 Ian Johnson
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