(November 2007 – Volume 13, Issue 11)
In our last two papers we have examined the emerging church’s distortion of the kingdom and its impact on the gospel. In this paper we will explore what Scripture teaches about the kingdom of God.
A Biblical Understanding of the Kingdom
Acts 1:3 informs us that during the 40 days in which Jesus was making appearances following the resurrection He spoke to the apostles concerning the kingdom of God. We are uncertain about exactly what He said but we know the kingdom was at the heart of His discussions with them during that time. In verse six Jesus is preparing to depart the earth and they have one question for Him, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel ?”
While we do not know precisely what Jesus had told them about the kingdom we do pick up on a couple of important pieces of information.
- The kingdom was still coming. Whatever Jesus told the apostles about the kingdom it had not dampened their expectation that it would be eventually “restored to Israel .” This of course implied that the kingdom had not yet come. If the kingdom was on earth at that moment, whether in their hearts or in another form, they would not have asked such a question. The only thing they did not know was the timing. In Jesus’ reply He does not deny that the kingdom is coming. The disciples were on target and Jesus did not deny this in any way. This is important to observe for, as John MacArthur states, “If they are mistaken about this, Jesus’ failure to correct them is mystifying and deceptive.” Jesus had promised earlier that the kingdom would come in the future (Luke 21:25-31; 22:18, 30) and all the apostles wanted to know was when.
- The kingdom would take form as promised. Throughout the Gospels it was obvious that the Jewish people were expecting the Messianic kingdom as foretold in the Old Testament prophecies. Jesus never contradicted their basic understanding of that kingdom, and as a matter of fact repeatedly told them in the early years of His public ministry that the “kingdom was at hand” (Matt 4:17). That is, Jesus made a legitimate offer to establish the kingdom at that time, but to do so they would have to accept Him as their King, something they ultimately refused to do. The kingdom therefore was postponed until Christ would return, but it was never withdrawn altogether. This is the obvious understanding of the apostles as Jesus prepares to ascend. The promised kingdom was still on the agenda – but when?
What tends to confuse the interpreter of Scripture at this point is that the term“ kingdom of God” does not always refer to the same kingdom. To get a handle on this we first must recognize three essential elements of any kingdom:
- There must be a ruler.
- There must be a realm to rule.
- There must be the exercising of authority.
With these elements in mind we turn to the Scriptures and there we can identify six unique kingdoms as related to God:
- The universal kingdom of God. This is God’s rule over the entire universe. He is the eternal, sovereign ruler over all creation.
- The spiritual kingdom of God. This is God’s rule over all believers. Anyone who is born again is part of this kingdom (Col. 1:13). Therefore during this dispensation the church could be called the spiritual kingdom of God in the sense that God has a special ruling relationship over the church, His subjects.
- The theocratic kingdom. This was God’s rule over Israel in the OT, which was to be ruled directly by God not by kings. It is for this reason that when Israel demanded a king they were in rebellion against the monarchy of God. This kingdom ceased in practice with the set up of earthly kings and in totality with the rejection of Christ.
- The mystery form of the kingdom. Matthew 13 explains that when Israel rejected its King it also rejected the promised Messianic kingdom. As a result it was temporarily replaced by a mystery form in which both good and evil are present. It is what we might call today Christendom; that is, all who would claim to be Christians are in this mystery form of the kingdom but not all are regenerated. Therefore it is not equivalent to the church.
- The Messianic kingdom. This was the kingdom promised to Israel in the Old Testament. It was to be an earthly kingdom with Christ (the Messiah) sitting on David’s throne ruling the earth in righteousness. It was postponed due to Israel’s rejection of Christ but will come at the end of the church age and, according to Revelation 20, will last for 1000 years.
- The eternal kingdom. This is God’s rule throughout eternity following the Millennial kingdom.
It was the Messianic kingdom about which the apostles were inquiring in the first chapter of Acts. They specifically wanted to know when the Lord would restore the “kingdom to Israel .” If the Lord was not intending to restore the kingdom to Israel , with all of its physical and land promises, would not this have been a great time to say so? If the Lord intended to take the promises of Israel away from it and roll them over into the church, why did He not tell the disciples? Instead He clearly implies that the kingdom will be restored to the people of Israel but the timing is not for them to know.
Alva McClain makes a compelling argument in his The Greatness of the Kingdom that the kingdom is actually offered again to the Jews in Acts 3:19-21. But as it was rejected when Jesus was on earth, so it is rejected under the ministry of the apostles and therefore it is postponed until a later date.
It is interesting to note that the kingdom is prominent in the Gospels but begins to fade in the Acts and the epistles. The word “kingdom” is found only five more times in Acts (8:12; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31). Each of these passages references the kingdom but none gives us any more details about the kingdom than we already processed from the Old Testament and the Gospels.
Of the 18 references to a kingdom in the epistles, most are referring to a future kingdom (either the Messianic or the eternal). However a few passages (only 4 clearly) such as Romans 14:17 and Colossians 1:13 show that God’s kingdom is what McClain calls a mediatorial kingdom. That is, a kingdom already chartered but which will have its manifestation in the Millennium when Messiah comes and literally restores the kingdom to Israel and sits on David’s throne.
The emergent church has badly misunderstood the biblical teaching on the kingdom of God. Actually, it has chosen to ignore what the Scriptures teach and has chosen to impose its own understanding of the kingdom in order to set forth its own agenda for the church and the world. One is reminded of Jesus’ warning to the Pharisees in Matthew 15:3, 6, “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” Then he said, “By this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your traditions.” Without question the emergent church is doing something very similar today.
In fact, the Messianic kingdom of God is not on the earth today but awaits the return of Christ. People’s good deeds toward one another and the planet are welcomed, but they do not form the kingdom, advance the kingdom or hasten the kingdom. The church’s mandate is not to clean up the planet, wipe out illness, eradicate poverty and injustice and call for peace treaties, as worthy as these actions are in their place. Our mandate is to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19-20). We are not to set up Christ’s kingdom on earth; that is His job. We are instead to call sinners to Christ that they might join us in proclaiming “the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). By rejecting the biblical teaching on the kingdom, a teaching dispensationalist have long championed, the emergent thinkers are leading their followers down a path Christ does not choose to take us. In so doing they have wrapped the emergent movement around a superimposed doctrine of the kingdom that agrees neither with Scripture nor reality.
 John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Acts 1-12, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), p. 20.
 This outline is a summary of the excellent presentation found in Paul N. Benware’s book, Understanding End Time Prophecies pp. 185-195. See also John Walvoord, “Biblical Kingdom Compared and Contrasted,” Issues in Dispensationalism, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994) pp. 75-91.
 Alva McClain, The Greatness of the Kingdom, (Winona Lake: BMH Books, 1987), pp. 403-406.