“Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” ~ Acts 1:6
Like most Jews at the time of Christ, the Apostles asked this question in anticipation of an earthly kingdom in which the Christ would reign over the Earth and restore Israel to its original majesty. Now, 2,000 years later, many people still wait for the day when temporal governments will be thwarted, the Kingdom will be established, and the Lord will rule on David’s throne from Jerusalem.
To be sure, God promised that a kingdom was coming for God’s people. He says in Exodus in 19:6: “And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation…” And later in Daniel 2:44: “…the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed…” A kingdom was promised, but when was it to come and what do we know of it? The Scriptures provide the answers.
In the biblical sense, the kingdom can mean a lot of things. The term is not used as consistently in the Scriptures as we might like. It always carries the same basic idea – the kingdom is where God reigns – but the connotations can vary greatly depending on the context. The Bible speaks of at least three different kingdoms, each of which must be unique from the others.
The Universal Kingdom
The first use of the term kingdom is especially predominate in the Old Testament text and refers to the Lord’s reign in the broadest sense. For example, David remarks in Psalm 103:19: “The LORD has established His throne in heaven, And His kingdom rules over all.” Making a similar statement about God’s greatness, David says in Psalm 145:13: “Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, And Your dominion endures throughout all generations.” In these passages, David proclaims that God’s kingdom exists everywhere and at all times. In this application of the term, the kingdom in understood to be universal, encompassing all that is because all is subject to the Lord’s will. This universal kingdom is not constrained by time or any other physical or spiritual boundaries.
The Kingdom of Heaven
When we don’t find this term used in so obtusely, it is usually apparent that it has a much more precise meaning. More often than not, the kingdom refers to heaven, the realm and abode of God and the reward for the righteous. Sometimes called the kingdom of God, sometimes called the kingdom of heaven, sometimes just called the kingdom, the phrases are synonymous and interchangeable in Scripture. Generally, this use of the term kingdom is distinguished from the universal kingdom because contextually it consistently refers to a future habitation for the saints or is clearly defined as a place that cannot be inhabited by our mortal, sinful flesh. Jesus speaks to this point in Matthew 7:21: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.” The Apostle Paul repeats this thought in Ephesians 5:5: “For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.” This kingdom, referring only to heaven, exists in an entirely different dimension of the universe where we will praise and serve our Savior and Maker for eternity.
These two kingdoms are well defined in the Bible, yet there remains one more use of the term kingdom. In teaching his disciples to pray, Jesus says in Luke 11:2: “Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come…” To this point we’ve described two kingdoms – one that exists everywhere and at all times and another understood to be heaven. The kingdom that Christ mentions here in his prayer, logically, must be still another kingdom. In saying your kingdom come we observe two important details: 1) this kingdom had not yet arrived, meaning it could not be the universal kingdom. 2) The kingdom would come to them; they wouldn’t go to the kingdom. For this reason, the reference couldn’t be to heaven either.
These observations about the kingdom addressed in the Lord’s Prayer will leave most Bible students scratching their heads. If this kingdom isn’t the universal kingdom or the kingdom we know to be heaven, what is this kingdom Christ talked about? What is this kingdom like? And, like the Apostles asked, when will this kingdom come?
If we believe the Lord to mean what he says, the language of the Bible would indicate that by the time of Jesus the kingdom had all but arrived! Jesus said in Matthew 4:27: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” Around the same time, John the Baptist also preached, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 3:2) There’s no denying the message. At the time of Christ and John the Baptist the manifestation of the kingdom was so close it was at hand, meaning, on the threshold or at the verge. For this reason Jesus makes comments like the one we find in Matthew 12:25: “…if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you.” As if to be perfectly clear, Jesus says in Mark 9:1: “Assuredly, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power.”
What do these passages mean? There’s only one conclusion consistent with the Scriptures – the kingdom has arrived and it’s been here for 2,000 years! The same people that heard those words of Christ preached 2,000 years ago saw the kingdom established. The kingdom, then, is not an institution of the future, the kingdom is here!
What is the Kingdom?
Christ’s words in Mark 9:1 (see above) are not just useful in describing a timeframe in which the kingdom was established; his comments also help us clearly identify what the kingdom really is. Jesus said his kingdom would be present with power, but this isn’t the only time we see this kind of language used. Acts 1:6-8 records, “Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying, ‘Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’ 7 And He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. 8 But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.’” Interestingly, Jesus uses the same language to describe events that would otherwise be considered separate subjects. Jesus preached that the kingdom would come with power and later said the Apostles would receive power in the form of the Holy Spirit. If these thoughts are meant to be connected it reveals the true identity of the kingdom. The Apostles received the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-3) and the Church was established on that very day (Acts 2:47). The kingdom, therefore, must be the Church!
This connection between Mark and Acts isn’t the only place in the Scriptures explaining the kingdom is the Church, established millennia ago. Paul explains in Colossians 1:13: “He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love…” Again in Revelation 1:5-6: “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood 6 and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (ESV)” Consistent with our previous conclusions, both of these writers agree that the Kingdom was available to God’s people long ago.
What the Kingdom is Not
These conclusions from the Scriptures fly in the face of many mainstream Christian teachers and preachers. Like the Jews of the 1st century, most believers today continue to hope for a physical manifestation of the kingdom. Like the Jews, people anticipating the arrival of an earthly reign of Christ will also be disappointed. In this way, we can further describe the nature of the Kingdom. It is defined both by what it is and what it is not. The kingdom is the Church, but what do the Scriptures say it is not?
The kingdom is not a civil or political institution. Jesus explicates this point in John 18:36: “Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here.’” In other words, the kingdom, though it exists on earth, is not like other earthly establishments. It is not a secular system of government nor does it wage any physical battles. The Church is a spiritual institution and as soldiers we fight a spiritual war, not a physical one.
The kingdom is not observed like other worldly organization. Luke 17:20-21 speaks to this point. “Now when He was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, ‘The kingdom of God does not come with observation; 21 nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.” The kingdom is not confined to a location nor can it be seen by simple observation. It exists in the hearts of the believers. This idea is consistent with the rest of the Bible. The Church is the body of Christ (Ephesians 1:22) and the body is made of many members (1 Corinthians 12:12).
The kingdom is not concerned with the rites, rituals, and sacraments of the Mosaic Law. The Apostle Paul emphasizes this concept in Romans 14:17: “…the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” A common problem in the early church was continued observance of the Mosaic Law. This is the idea of Colossians 2:16-17: “So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, 17 which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.” Service to God within the kingdom omits the pomp and pageantry of the Old Testament as well as the strict regulations on eating and drinking. The kingdom of God is its own religious system, serving God with the substance of provided by Christ, not through the symbols of the Old Law.
The Kingdom is not what many would make it to be – not a physical kingdom, no physical reign of Christ, and no physical battles. The kingdom, the Church, is a spiritual institution working to serve the Lord until the Earth is no longer. When the end finally arrives, the Lord makes this promise to his kingdom: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. 23 But each one in his own order: Christ the first fruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. 24 Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power.” (1 Corinthians 15:22-24) In the consummation of all things, when the world meets its end, the kingdom on earth will at last be delivered into the kingdom of heaven.
I am a member of the Riverside Road Church of Christ in Ozark, MO, where I share the responsibility of teaching and preaching with several other men. In my secular work, I am a professor at Cox College in Springfield, MO, in the department of radiologic sciences and imaging.